The growing environmental costs of the forced transition to electric vehicles are becoming clear. Unfortunately, these costs are only the tip of the iceberg. The human costs of reworking global transportation options are proving to be much more worrisome.
Manufacturing and supply chains for electric vehicles are impacting human lives from the beginning of their supply chain to the factory floor. Because of this, the employment and human rights issues surrounding electric vehicles are far greater than those of conventional vehicles.
According to the America First Policy Institute, EVs require significantly less labor to produce than comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. “Conventional vehicles have 2,000 moving parts in their powertrains, while Tesla EV drivetrains only have 17.” As a result, the Biden Administration’s push for electric vehicles would result in a loss of around 117,000 auto industry jobs. Even factoring in jobs created by EV production, the result is a net loss to American auto workers.
Critics suggest that clinging to inefficient or outdated technologies as a means of maintaining jobs is akin to advocating for the resurrection of the carriage or buggy whip manufacturing industry. But that analogy fails here. If jobs were transitioned as a result of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” that process would drive automobile prices lower and offer customers a safer, better, more efficient, and innovative product. However, in the case of electric vehicles, laying off productive workers to help promote the production of a heavily subsidized and substandard product does not improve the industry, the economy, or the well-being of consumers.
Looking back up the supply chain, EV production requires around six times the minerals that conventional vehicles consume. This creates increased demand for elements such as cobalt, which is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Congolese cobalt comes from one of two sources, large industrial mining operations and smaller, illegal, so-called artisanal mines. According to the Washington Post, industrial sites such as the Tenke Fungurume mine expose workers to dangerous conditions and poor treatment. “Stories about poor treatment were repeated in interviews with current and former workers who had been injured at industrial mines scattered throughout the southeastern Congo,” the Post stated.
Many of these employees asked to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation. Some described their employer’s refusal to pay for medical treatment when they were injured at work. One worker said he had “worked 14 straight months at the Tenke Fungurume mine without a weekend off.” Both of these accounts describe actions that are illegal under Congolese law.
But these abuses persist. Workers often find themselves out of work after an on-the-job injury, leaving them unable to support their families and in danger of losing their homes. Chronically underpaid miners tell stories of children dying from malnutrition and easily cured sicknesses.
However, these tales from miners working for legally licensed and permitted mining companies pale in comparison to the conditions faced by the country’s 200,000 artisanal miners. Unlike industrial mine workers, “artisanal” miners work for as little as a few dollars a day extracting toxic cobalt in dangerous conditions, with hand tools and no protective gear.
Artisanal mines have no heavy equipment to assist in excavation, and miners spend hours each day (and night) struggling in unsupported underground tunnels. The poor construction of such mines often results in collapses, which can kill and injure miners, many as young as seven years old. Additionally, a lack of respirators means workers breathe in toxic dust and fumes.
Doctors in 2012 “found preliminary evidence of an increased risk of a baby being born with a visible birth defect if the father worked in Congo’s mining industry,” the Post reported. Urinary levels of cobalt from people who live near mines or smelters are roughly 43 times higher than those of control groups. These higher levels are also reported in children.
In his blockbuster book, Cobalt Red, author and researcher Siddarth Kara describes how the cobalt produced by artisanal mines can be purchased by an “informal ecosystem of négociants (traders) and comptoirs (depots), also known as maisons d’achat (buying houses). These are the fuzzy linkages that serve to launder minerals from artisanal sources into the formal supply chain.” It is through these “fuzzy linkages” that hand-mined cobalt is mixed with product from industrial mines, making it impossible to verify that the cobalt in a specific battery came from a legitimate industrial source.
Finally, even if one could verify and track ethically sourced minerals, it is still likely the batteries produced with those minerals and metals relied on forced labor somewhere in the international supply chain.
China “dominates rare earth processing with at least 85 percent of global rare earth processing capacity,” according to the Institute for Energy Research. But many Chinese companies that refine minerals or manufacture batteries and components have ties to the Xinjiang region. Comments from senior officials in the U.S. Defense Department indicate that as many as three million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in the region may be forcibly interned and working in what Chinese officials have called “re-education camps.” As a result, it is increasingly likely that at some point, at some location around the world, the components in an EV have passed through the hands of child laborers or modern-day slaves.
While electric vehicles have been touted as the clean future of mobility, their negative impacts on human lives include misery and abuse at every level of production. Because of their impact on the auto industry and the near impossibility of determining whether components were ethically sourced and produced, the human costs of electric vehicles cast a long shadow on their clean image.
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