Allegations of Abuses in Critical Minerals Supply Chains

by Carolyn Mathas

According to an AP report, a human rights advocacy group found allegations of dozens of labor and environmental abuses by Chinese-invested companies involved in mining or processing minerals used in renewable energy. The report claims 102 alleged abuses in all phases of using such minerals: from initial explorations and licensing to mining and processing. Nine minerals were involved in the study: cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, zinc, aluminum, chromium, and rare earth elements. All are vital for such products as solar panels and batteries for electric vehicles.

With 27 cases, Indonesia had the highest, followed by Peru with 16, the Democratic Republic of Congo with 12, Myanmar with 11, and Zimbabwe with 7. More than two-thirds involved human rights violations. Not surprisingly, Indigenous communities are the most affected.

The world needs to triple its clean energy capacity by 2030 from last year to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This objective triggered a scramble for “transition minerals” like cobalt, copper, lithium, and zinc, needed in clean energy technologies. China isn’t alone. Similar alleged abuses by companies based in the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Canada exist. The report’s authors did not want to be identified publicly because of fears of retaliation.

Copper-rich developing nations like Peru and nickel-exporting countries like Indonesia and the Philippines increasingly rely on Chinese investment and know-how to mine and process those minerals, generally with fewer regulatory safeguards.

Approximately 42% of the human rights allegations in the report were concentrated in Asia & the Pacific, 27% were in Latin America, and 24% in Africa. More than half were cases of environmental damage, often loss of access to safe water supplies. More than a third involved allegations workers’ rights were violated, with the majority linked to health and safety risks at work.

The report said that China’s Huayou Cobalt “partially” admitted allegations of environmental damage in Indonesia by acknowledging social and ecological challenges. But the company denied the alleged exploitation of Chinese workers in a separate project. Ruashi Mining said that human rights abuse allegations in the Democratic Republic of Congo were false, and the state-run conglomerate Norinco denied having corrupt ties with Myanmar’s army elite.

China lacks laws to regulate the impacts of Chinese overseas businesses and supply chains, and policies on such issues are mostly voluntary. These problems are being addressed in the U.S. and Europe, and Japan and South Korea are increasingly making human rights and environmental due diligence a part of their regulatory frameworks.

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