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Slave Labor in the Green Economy

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Too often, we hear something like “Either the climate is a crisis or it’s not a crisis and if it’s a crisis, then we have to plow ahead with a radical transformation without worrying too much about the costs.” I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiment. The problem is, of course, that it will replicate existing power inequities and there’s no reason that this has to happen. So the question is, if the green economy is built in part on slave labor in Congolese mines, is that something we need to care about? And the answer had been damn well be yes!

Smartphones, computers and electric vehicles may be emblems of the modern world, but, says Siddharth Kara, their rechargeable batteries are frequently powered by cobalt mined by workers laboring in slave-like conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and at the Kennedy School, has been researching modern-day slavery, human trafficking and child labor for two decades. He says that although the DRC has more cobalt reserves than the rest of the planet combined, there’s no such thing as a “clean” supply chain of cobalt from the country. In his new book, Cobalt Red, Kara writes that much of the DRC’s cobalt is being extracted by so-called “artisanal” miners — freelance workers who do extremely dangerous labor for the equivalent of just a few dollars a day.

“You have to imagine walking around some of these mining areas and dialing back our clock centuries,” Kara says. “People are working in subhuman, grinding, degrading conditions. They use pickaxes, shovels, stretches of rebar to hack and scrounge at the earth in trenches and pits and tunnels to gather cobalt and feed it up the formal supply chain.”

Kara says the mining industry has ravaged the landscape of the DRC. Millions of trees have been cut down, the air around mines is hazy with dust and grit, and the water has been contaminated with toxic effluents from the mining processing. What’s more, he says, “Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe — and there are hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people touching and breathing it day in and day out. Young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all breathing in this toxic cobalt dust.”

Cobalt is used in the manufacture of almost all lithium ion rechargeable batteries used in the world today. And while those outside of the DRC differentiate between cobalt extracted by the country’s high-tech industrial mining companies and that which was dug by artisanal miners, Kara says the two are fundamentally intertwined.

“There’s complete cross-contamination between industrial excavator-derived cobalt and cobalt dug by women and children with their bare hands,” he says. “Industrial mines, almost all of them, have artisanal miners working, digging in and around them, feeding cobalt into the formal supply chain.”

Obviously, we need cobalt. But we don’t need it with slave labor. The answer, as I have stated many times, is to hold corporations legally accountable for working conditions in their supply chains. But we just mostly don’t care. There’s no good reason why this has to exist. Corporations already control their supply chains for cost and quality. They don’t do so on labor and environmental issues because they don’t want to and we aren’t making them. That’s not some inevitable result. As for me, I want a green economy that doesn’t enslave and kill workers.

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