Mobile Slavery

‘Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past. Lighter and packing more energy than conventional lead-acid batteries, these cobalt-rich batteries are seen as “green.” They are essential to plans for one day moving beyond smog-belching gasoline engines… Smartphones would not fit in pockets without them. Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical. In many ways, the current Silicon Valley gold rush — from mobile devices to driverless cars — is built on the power of lithium-ion batteries.’


In the modern world, we are saturated with the presence – and even the expectation – of supply chain abuse. The most jarring lodge themselves in the mind as examples that directly and profoundly challenge our notion of conscientious consumption: The Sunday Times’ 2013 investigation  that revealed the Eastern European slaves packing our free range eggs; the West Midlands ‘recycling empire’ – raided just last week  – built on the work  of 12 visibly ‘malnourished’ and coerced men of Polish and Asian origin.


Green, we’re reminded, is not always good. And yet as consumers, our narrative of conscience has been disproportionately focused on questions of environmental, rather than human cost – simply look at the pace of legislation on modern slavery verses that of ‘free range’, ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ certification.


Environmental concerns are driving vast new opportunities for industries built on ‘clean energy’ and ‘ethical’ sourcing; but the ironies at the heart of our vision for a greener future are only becoming more acute.


As The Washington Post reports, no where is this thrown into sharper relief than in the sourcing of cobalt: the mineral that fuels our technology, our hopes for clean energy, and our entire way of life – and is largely sourced, without scrutiny or regulation, from the Congo, where 60 per cent of the world’s Cobalt originates.


Despite a decade of human rights groups, including Amnesty, highlighting the prevalence of child labour and ‘artisanal mining’ – a practice where an estimated 100,000 men dig in perilous conditions without equipment, rights, or insurance for pay that barely covers bread – and now, building evidence of birth defects from cobalt exposure, profound change has been almost non-existent.


Industry experts believe there is one simple reason for this lethargy: ‘Any crimp in the cobalt supply chain would devastate companies’. The plain truth is that there is no better substitute: ‘Engineers have tried for years to craft cobalt-free batteries. But the mineral best known as a blue pigment has a unique ability to boost battery performance’.

Now, driven by the electric car market, global cobalt demand from the battery sector has tripled in five years and is projected to double again by 2020. Propping up this unsustainable demand is the army of artisanal workers – constituting an estimated 10 to 25 per cent of the world’s cobalt production and about 17 to 40 per cent of production in Congo – who provide cheap supplies that undercut the world’s industrial mines.


Close parallels are also at play in the seafood supply chain, where concern with ‘green’ fishing practices has for too long overshadowed the human reality of an industry in which unsustainable demand, dwindling wild catch supply and migrant labour dependency has created ones of the world’s most abusive and lawless industries, as reported widely by The New York Times and The Guardian.


No where is this exploitation more pronounced than in Thailand, whose fishing industry is almost entirely supported by migrant workers – many of whom are trafficked onto ‘ghost ships’, enslaved and isolated for years at a time, hundreds of miles from shore in desperate conditions. ‘“I have never witnessed anything remotely like what was going on in Thailand – in case after case you were talking violent abuse and murder,”’ said Steve Trent, co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation. ‘“These were not isolated cases. It was institutionalised in the seafood sector.”’


The regulation and tracking technology that could reform the industry remain voluntary, and companies like Thai Union, the subject of recent exposes, continue – despite recent claims of reform– to the argue that eradication is all but impossible. ‘“Companies might say they’ll just source from another country that has no slavery in their supply chain”’, said Darian McBain, the company’s sustainability director, speaking at a recent Guardian event, ‘“but I’d like to know what that country is. This is an issue that occurs across the fishing industry worldwide.”’


Others simply deny there is an issue. In response to The Post on its cobalt supply, Amazon claimed to ‘”work closely with suppliers”’ and ‘”conduct a number of audits”’ to ensure ‘”compliance”’. Others shift blame back down the supply chain: ‘BMW acknowledged that some of the cobalt in its Samsung SDI batteries comes from Congo but said The Post should ask Samsung SDI for more details’.


And yet, as Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative explains, these commitments ring hollow. ‘What we do know, absolutely… is that the most vulnerable workers are never going to get captured in an audit. They are far too desperate and far too vulnerable to raise their heads, and they are way down the supply chain – seven, eight, nine tiers deep.’


And In the face of lethargic legal reform, real change must mean a new age of leadership from the world’s most powerful brands. In conversation with The Mark Up, Steve Trent, argues that, by admitting their supply chain weaknesses, ‘businesses can make a virtue out of their flaws. But it does take courage. And it does require them to engage with NGOs in a different way. NGOs are in a sense gamekeepers: acting in a regulatory role to give insight into what is going on. If businesses are willing to have robust and frank discussions with them, then they will find that there is a line stretching from their door willing to stand up in their defence and say “this company is trying to do the right thing.”’
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