Used since an­cient times for its pig­ment, cobalt is now an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in air­craft man­u­fac­ture. But how eth­i­cal is the process of min­ing this pre­cious metal?


The eth­i­cal is­sues be­hind cobalt mines

Cobalt is one of those magic in­gre­di­ents that we may not of­ten think about, but use ev­ery day. It is found in the recharge­able bat­ter­ies needed to power ev­ery­thing from iPhones to elec­tric cars, but it is also used in su­per­al­loys, which are valu­able be­cause of their re­sis­tance to high tem­per­a­tures and cor­ro­sion. Cobalt, there­fore, finds its way into air­craft en­gines. The Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo (DRC) is the prin­ci­pal sup­plier. In 2017 around 67 per cent of the world’s cobalt was mined there, ac­cord­ing to Dar­ton Com­modi­ties. Many of the mines are un­mech­a­nised, so work is done by hand – and those hands can be chil­dren’s. So it’s worth ask­ing, where does the cobalt used in en­gines come from?

Air­craft mak­ers, it seems, are not the right peo­ple to ask. Boe­ing did not re­spond to re­quests for in­for­ma­tion. Air­bus did, but only to di­rect us to the en­gine mak­ers them­selves. Cather­ine Malek, head of cor­po­rate me­dia re­la­tions at the French air­crafte­quip­ment maker Safran, replied that di­rect sup­pli­ers must sign a char­ter that for­bids forced or child labour. Safran, she wrote, does not buy cobalt di­rectly, only in al­loy form. Nev­er­the­less it is still in the en­gine. So where does it come from?

Jenny Dervin, of US aerospace man­u­fac­turer Pratt and Whit­ney, also said that the com­pany “does not pur­chase raw cobalt, but some en­gine parts, and some al­loys used to man­u­fac­ture en­gine parts, in­clude cobalt. We do not re­quire that sup­pli­ers re­port the ori­gin of the cobalt that they may use in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process.” Though, she added: “Sup­pli­ers are re­quired to com­ply with a code of con­duct that bans child or forced labour.”

Rolls-Royce com­mented that the com­pany “fully sup­ports the prin­ci­ples of reg­u­la­tions that pro­mote so­cially re­spon­si­ble sourc­ing of min­er­als. We re­quest our sup­pli­ers to only pro­vide us with raw ma­te­ri­als, com­po­nents and sub­assem­blies de­rived from re­spon­si­bly sourced min­er­als that can be cer­ti­fied in ac­cor­dance with OECD guide­lines.” Again, re­spon­si­bil­ity is de­ferred else­where.

Bady Balde, Africa di­rec­tor at the Ex­trac­tive In­dus­tries Trans­parency Ini­tia­tive in Oslo, points out that OECD guide­lines alone are not enough. “There is par­tial in­for­ma­tion on small-scale min­ers’ level of com­pli­ance with the OECD’s due dili­gence guide­lines,” he says, “but this in­for­ma­tion is not suf­fi­cient to cer­tify all cobalt pro­duc­ers in the DRC. It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to be sure that a min­eral pro­duced from the DRC is free from child labour.”

Perry Bradley, di­rec­tor of me­dia re­la­tions at GE Avi­a­tion, re­ferred me to the Aerospace In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion: “It is best po­si­tioned to talk about how the in­dus­try think­ing is evolv­ing on this is­sue.” The ques­tion, though, was not about in­dus­try think­ing, but cobalt...

“GE Avi­a­tion is ac­tively in­volved in an aerospace in­dus­try-wide ef­fort re­gard­ing

These com­pa­nies ei­ther don’t know or don’t want to say where a spe­cific sup­ply of cobalt comes from

con­flict min­er­als, in­clud­ing cobalt, un­der the aus­pices of the Aerospace In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion,” Bradley said. “In ad­di­tion, GE is strongly com­mit­ted to sup­port con­flict min­eral ini­tia­tives and proac­tively in­volved and en­gaged with the Re­spon­si­ble Min­er­als Ini­tia­tive (RMI), in­clud­ing a work­ing group fo­cused on the re­spon­si­ble sourc­ing of cobalt and, in par­tic­u­lar, risks re­lated to in­stances of child labour in cobalt min­ing in the DRC.

“GE Avi­a­tion’s sup­plier terms and con­di­tions ad­dress use of con­flict min­er­als and the hu­man rights of work­ers, in­clud­ing ban­ning use of un­der­age labour, pro­hibit­ing use of forced labour or labour sub­ject to any phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse, or other forms of ex­ploita­tion or co­er­cion. Sup­pli­ers are re­quired to have a sound con­flict min­er­als pol­icy that pro­motes pro­cure­ment prac­tices in ac­cor­dance with Sec­tion 1502 of the Dodd Frank Act, and GE Avi­a­tion con­ducts an an­nual con­flict min­eral cam­paign with sig­nif­i­cant sup­pli­ers to mon­i­tor com­pli­ance with these re­quire­ments.”

On, then, to the Aerospace In­dus­tries As­so­ci­a­tion, which re­sponded as fol­lows: “AIA and its mem­bers work in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the RMI to push sup­pli­ers of the 3TG min­er­als (tin, tan­ta­lum, tung­sten and gold) to­wards smelters who’ve demon­strated sound min­ing pro­cesses that ad­here to in­ter­na­tional stan­dards for re­spon­si­bly sourced min­er­als.”

Right, but what hap­pened to the cobalt? “Across our work, we’ve en­cour­aged smelters to de­velop sup­ply chains where min­er­als are sourced from smelters or re­fin­ers val­i­dated as com­pli­ant with the RMI’s Re­spon­si­ble Min­er­als As­sur­ance Process (RMAP) or a sim­i­lar pro­gramme. In do­ing so, com­pa­nies can build sup­ply chains from a list of ap­proved sup­pli­ers who’ve un­der­gone RMI’s third-party au­dit­ing to en­sure con­for­mance with RMAP pro­to­cols and global stan­dards.”

On the whole, it seems air­craft mak­ers ei­ther don’t know or don’t want to say where their cobalt comes from. But we do know about two-thirds of it is from the DRC. Since 2015, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional has been work­ing to track the cobalt from mines there. I spoke to Mark Dum­mett, a hu­man rights re­searcher at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional in Lon­don. Air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ers “ab­so­lutely have a re­spon­si­bil­ity for ev­ery­thing that goes into the plane”, Dum­mett said. “They have an obli­ga­tion to un­der­stand where ev­ery­thing comes from, es­pe­cially when pos­si­ble hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions are con­cerned.”

Dum­mett ar­gues that cobalt is in fact eas­ier to track than, for ex­am­ple, sweat­shop gar­ments, be­cause there may be only four or five stages from mine to end user. The ques­tion is one of cor­po­rate will, rather than of track­ing tech­nolo­gies, he says. “What ques­tions are com­pa­nies ask­ing their sup­pli­ers?”

For those who know their his­tory, much of this may seem fa­mil­iar. It’s now al­most 130 years since the cre­ation of Dun­lop Rub­ber. The rub­ber came from what was then called the “Congo Free State”, which, from 1885 to 1908, was the pri­vate prop­erty of King Leopold II of Bel­gium. Mil­lions were forced into un­paid labour, and faced tor­ture and mur­der.

We don’t know what would hap­pen to the child min­ers if they were all thrown out of the DRC mines but, as a start, it would be good to know if they are in the sup­ply chain. It seems that some en­gine mak­ers are ask­ing the ques­tions, but don’t want to share the an­swers. One group of peo­ple to whom man­u­fac­tur­ers do lis­ten is trav­ellers. Es­pe­cially busi­ness trav­ellers.

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