FRANKFURT, Germany — In December 2020, the European Commission proposed a new sustainable batteries regulation. In line with the EU’s ambition to be climate neutral by 2050, this legislation aims to reduce the environmental harm caused by battery production and usage while building up the EU’s domestic battery industry. However, this bill might also help solve a complicated human rights challenge by ensuring labor protection for mine workers in economically developing nations, specifically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Broadly speaking, sustainable battery regulation will increase environmental protection, transparency and monitoring at every stage of a battery’s life cycle. Producers, for example, would have to source materials through supply chains upholding high environmental, labor and human rights standards. For batteries produced outside the EU, importers and distributors would be responsible for assessing the batteries’ compliance with these value-based standards.
More than 70% of the world’s extracted cobalt, a mineral crucial to battery production, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Amnesty International has reported that many cobalt mines in the DRC fail to provide adequate working conditions. As the sustainable batteries regulation could threaten inhumanely operated mines with expulsion from the EU’s market, the proposed regulation could induce many Congolese mines to improve their working conditions.
Cobalt Mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Child labor and unsafe working conditions are just two of the many problems currently endemic to mine work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In particular, so-called artisanal and small-scale mining often fail to meet minimum working standards. Between 15% to 30% of Congolese miners work in these areas more often than informally administered mines.
Complicating this challenge further, cobalt mining provides income for millions of Congolese. Yet, more than $570 million in mining revenue allegedly “disappeared” because of government corruption and mismanagement between 2013 and 2015. However, simply shutting down mines will do more harm than good.
In the future, the growing demand for cobalt risks exacerbating these human rights failures. The World Bank Group predicts that the demand for cobalt will be four times as high as it is today by 2030. In terms of batteries themselves, the European Commission expects the global demand for batteries to be 14 times as high in 2030 as it was in 2018. If these numbers materialize without the necessary rules, procedures and infrastructure in place, they will overwhelm the capacity to monitor mines and where their products head, leaving many workers vulnerable and many mines unchecked.
Private companies have undertaken various endeavors to clean up their supply chains. The Renewable Cobalt Initiative (RCI), for example, aims to coordinate manufacturers’ efforts to guarantee that its cobalt is mined ethically. Established by the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters (CCCMMC) in 2016, RCI comprises more than 30 companies in the technology industry, including Apple Inc., HP Inc. and Huawei.
That being said, in December 2019, the human rights firm International Rights Advocates filed a lawsuit against Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla on behalf of 14 parents and children from the DCR. The firm accused the tech giants of “aiding and abetting” the sometimes mortal harm befalling mine workers in the DCR. It also claimed that the companies “reasonably should have known” that many of the mines in question employed children, often for the most dangerous tasks.
The five firms issued a motion in October 2020 to dismiss the complaint, contending that they did not know about infractions at these specific cobalt mines. Moreover, these firms claimed that the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) — under which they had been sued — did not cover workers pressured into subpar working conditions by economic necessity, only those pressured by the threat of violence.
Whether private initiatives are meaningful or just “window dressing” is difficult to know. Raising awareness of the issue and receiving firms’ commitments is a useful first step, but mere rhetoric will not raise the working conditions of Congolese miners; only substantive change will.
On the Way to Final Legislation
The EU’s proposed sustainable batteries regulation is a policy whose primary aim is to build up the EU’s domestic battery industry and lead the global transition to environmentally conscious production. But aside from these goals, the proposed legislation could also improve labor standards in the Congolese mining sector. By making importers and distributors responsible for ensuring that foreign-sourced materials meet environmental, social, and human rights standards, the regulation could trigger a change in cobalt mines’ monitoring and working conditions in the DRC. The final legislation is likely to look different from its current formulation as the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union have yet to present their reactions to the proposal. It nonetheless demonstrates that promoting human rights and promoting economic and environmental objectives are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand.
– Alexander Vanezis