In the quest for a greener future, Tesla, the pioneering electric vehicle giant, finds itself entangled in controversy as it procures battery materials from Glencore, a mining behemoth notorious for a multitude of human rights abuse allegations. With over 70 accusations lodged against Glencore since 2010, including corruption and exploitative working conditions, it’s no wonder that they have consistently topped the list of offenders compiled by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. As the demand for renewable energy materials skyrockets, the dark side of the mining industry looms large, posing a significant challenge to the vision of a sustainable and ethical energy transition.
While Tesla and Glencore claim to be taking measures to address the harm caused by their mining operations, the fact that Glencore has maintained its unenviable position at the forefront of the Resource Centre’s list for two consecutive years raises serious concerns. The findings of the nonprofit organization underscore the pivotal role played by just five companies, including Glencore, in more than half of the documented allegations in 2022. Such a concentration of abuse within a handful of industry giants sends a distressing message: unless swift action is taken to eradicate these transgressions, the noble pursuit of clean energy risks replicating the mistakes of other extractive industries.
Caroline Avan, the Centre’s natural resources researcher, draws attention to the growing perils accompanying the intensified mining efforts driven by the relentless demand for new minerals. Avan stresses that mega-corporations like Tesla possess the leverage to influence the entire sector, not merely by making requests but by insisting that their suppliers refrain from engaging in human rights abuses. The Resource Centre’s “transition minerals tracker” reveals a staggering tally of over 500 allegations since 2010, encompassing a wide spectrum of potential atrocities, from worker exploitation to environmental degradation, fueling conflicts, and even illicit payments to government officials.
These allegations predominantly revolve around the mining of six critical minerals indispensable for renewable energy technologies, electric vehicles, and batteries: cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, and zinc. Glencore’s involvement looms large, with the company facing five allegations directly in 2022 and four additional accusations implicating joint ventures associated with Glencore. The report spotlights a disconcerting surge in corruption allegations targeting Glencore and the wider mining industry, with a fourfold increase compared to the previous year. Glencore’s guilty plea to foreign bribery and market manipulation charges, accompanied by a hefty $1.1 billion fine, further tarnishes its reputation. Additionally, an investigation by Zambia’s Anti-Corruption Commission looms over Glencore for alleged payments made to a political party.
Among the grievances directed at Glencore are concerns surrounding workers’ rights in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, and Colombia. The Verge shed light on the dire working conditions in Glencore’s cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo, revealing reports of employees enduring long hours in sweltering heat with limited access to water and food. While Tesla reportedly acquired a significant portion of the cobalt produced by the mine, the company has yet to respond to these allegations.
Tesla’s impact reports highlight their visit to cobalt mine sites in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they claim to have considered grievances raised by NGOs and academic studies regarding working conditions. The reports also acknowledge the removal of 12 cobalt suppliers and 29 nickel suppliers due to concerns regarding supply chain diligence. However, it remains unclear whether Glencore was among the excluded suppliers.
Responding to the accusations, Glencore spokesperson Charles Watenphul acknowledges the diverse contexts in which the company’s assets are located, ranging from developed countries with robust legal and political frameworks to regions plagued by socio-political challenges, limited services, and weak rule of law. Watenphul asserts Glencore’s commitment to upholding international labor and human rights agreements.
While cobalt has earned the notorious moniker of the “blood diamond of batteries,” Avan stresses that the problem extends beyond this mineral. Clean energy supply chains worldwide are entangled in a web of alleged wrongdoing. This underscores the urgent need to reduce reliance on raw minerals, which can be achieved through the development of devices that are easier to recycle or repair, coupled with the expansion of efficient public transportation alternatives. In this pursuit, holding mining companies accountable for their operations and ensuring the implementation of due diligence and respect for human rights becomes paramount.
In conclusion, Tesla’s association with Glencore casts a shadow of doubt over the mining industry’s commitment to human rights, especially in the context of clean energy production. The imperative to achieve a sustainable and ethical energy transition necessitates decisive action to address the systemic abuses plaguing the mining sector. We can only pave the way towards a sustainable future by upholding accountability, fostering transparency, and embracing innovative approaches.