Electric cars and digital devices must be free from child labour

Child labour is prevalent in the DRC's cobalt mines, which are used to power electric vehicles, smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

For the first time in 20 years, child labour worldwide has increased. According to a report released recently by the International Labour Organization and the UN children’s agency, 160 million children are now estimated to be involved in child labour activities, writes Benedikt Sobotka, CEO, Eurasian Resources Group and co-chair, Global Battery Alliance.

The United Nations has declared 2021 the international year for the elimination of child labour, and is urging increased action from businesses, governments, international development banks and investors.

Covid-related economic disruptions, school closures and shrinking national budgets have put millions more children around the globe at risk of labour. However, it is the shift in global consumer trends that could be the most damaging for children in the mining communities of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The DRC supplies two thirds of the world’s cobalt, which is needed to power electric vehicles, smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Dangerous working conditions and child labour are prevalent in the country’s cobalt mines, with estimates suggesting that as many as 1 million children are involved in the mining industry.

The issue has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has significantly bolstered demand for digital devices and electric vehicles. For example, in the first two months of lockdown last year, one in five UK adults purchased at least one new digital device. 2020 was also a record year for electric vehicles, with global sales of electric cars rising by 43% against the backdrop of a renewed focus on transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

The exponential demand in these products means that urgent action is needed to prevent it from coming at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable communities – in particular, children in the DRC. Not only is better legislation in the main consumer countries necessary, but we also need concrete, collaborative action across the value chain to guarantee that smartphones, laptops and electric cars are free from child labour. 

Investor action

For investors, this means demanding upstream actors take appropriate due diligence and establish a system of complete transparency over their supply chains, with internal systems in place to identify and prevent child labour. The investment community must also ensure they are directing capital to solutions that are not only green, like electric vehicles, but also socially sustainable.

Similarly, consumers need to be requesting increased transparency of the battery-powered products they buy. Quality seals for smartphones and electric vehicles should become normalised in the same way that the UK’s Fairtrade food label is, in order to ensure ethical working conditions for a greater range of products.

To this end, Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), which operates Metalkol RTR, the world’s second largest standalone cobalt producing entity in the DRC, has been working on solutions to strengthen standards traceability along the value chain. As a founding member of the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), a public private collaboration platform whose members include Volkswagen, BASF and others, ERG has been working to develop a battery passport – a type of quality seal that can measure the sustainability and environmental impact of a battery and, crucially, guarantee that end-products are in no way connected with child labour.  

But these sorts of efforts must also be complemented by comprehensive local development strategies that support value creation and make a lasting, sustainable impact in local communities. This includes fostering safe and good-quality jobs for the local community, helping young people access education and providing awareness training on the risks associated with child labour. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are key to achieving this sort of long-term sustainable impact on communities.

The latest figures on child labour released by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF must serve as a wake-up call. As we look to a future characterised by greater digitalisation and the low-carbon transition, investing in children’s rights is of the utmost importance.