Amnesty International campaign calls for better mining, manufacture, and disposal of electric vehicle batteries

golf electricWhile the Nordic EV Summit   in March 2019 showcased progress on the adoption of electric vehicles, Amnesty International used that backdrop to  issue a challenge to leaders in the electric vehicle industry –  to produce the world’s first completely ethical battery, free of human rights abuses within its supply chain, within five years.

It is not news that the mining of  cobalt and lithium, the two key minerals in batteries, has been linked to human rights abuses, environmental pollution, ecosystem destruction and indigenous rights violations.   Amnesty was amongst the first to document the child labour and human rights abuses with a report This is what we die for   in 2016,  updated in  2017 by an article,  “The Dark Side of Electric Cars: Exploitative Labor Practices”.  More recently, “Indigenous people’s livelihoods at risk in scramble for lithium, the new white goldappeared in The Ethical Corporation  (April 9), describing the human rights situation in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, which hold 60% of the world’s lithium reserves. The environmental impacts of deep-sea mining are also of concern.

In addition to the mining of raw materials, battery manufacturing has a high carbon footprint, with most of the current manufacturing concentrated in China, South Korea and Japan, where electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting sources of power.

Finally, the issue of electronic waste, including batteries, has been the subject of several  reports:  From  the International Labour Organization :  in 2012,  Global Impact of E-waste: Addressing the Challenge and more recently,  Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) , an Issues paper produced for a Global Dialogue Forum on Decent Work in the Management of Electrical and Electronic Waste in April 2019.  The 2019  report provides estimates of the workforce involved in some countries – led by China, with an estimated 690,000 workers in 2007, followed by up to 100,000 in Nigeria , followed by 60,000 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The report deals mainly with occupational health and safety issues and includes an overview of international  e-waste regulation, as well as case studies of  the U.S., Argentina, China, India, Japan, Nigeria.  Similar discussions appear in  A New Circular Vision for Electronics Time for a Global Reboot , released by the E-waste Coalition at the 2019 World Economic Forum, and in a blog, Dead Batteries deserve a Second Life published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development on April 9.evcobalt-lithium-V2_1-supply-chain

Clearly, there are labour and environmental problems related to lithium-ion batteries and the green vehicles and electronic devices they power.  Recognizing  all these concerns, the new Amnesty International campaign is calling for:  improvement in human rights practices in mining, and  a prohibition on commercial deep-sea mining; disclosure and accounting for carbon in manufacturing, and for legal protection and enforcement of workplace rights such as health, equality and non-discrimination; finally for products to be designed and regulated to encourage re-use and penalize waste, with prevention of  illegal or dangerous export and dumping of batteries.

ILO report: “It is not action against climate change and environmental degradation that will destroy jobs, it is inaction that will destroy jobs”

ilo2019workforabrighterfutureTo mark its centenary in 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) commissioned a Global Commission on the Future of Work in 2015. On January 22, the Centenary was launched with the release of the Commission’s report : Work for a Brighter Future , an aspirational document with  recommendations for government policies to address the “ unprecedented transformational change in the world of work.”   The ten recommendations in the report call for a universal labour guarantee that protects fundamental workers’ rights, an adequate living wage, limits on hours of work and safe and healthy workplaces, a universal entitlement to lifelong learning , managing technological change to boost decent work, and greater investments in the care economy, green economy, and rural economy. The Executive Summary is here ; the full 66-page Report is here  .

Work for a Brighter Future is a broad and visionary document, but its arguments and proposals are supported by a series of more detailed research papers, including The Future of work in a Changing Natural Environment: Climate change, degradation and sustainability (August 2018) . The Research Paper argues that “… on the one hand, environmental degradation destroys work opportunities and worsens working conditions. On the other hand, any efforts to achieve sustainability will entail a structural transformation. Crucially, this transformation can result in more and better jobs.”

The paper calls for a new development model that acknowledges that the economy, including the world of work, is a subsystem of the global ecosystem, and cannot expand beyond the confines of ecological limits. It concludes: “….For developing economies, it means adopting a development strategy based on sustainable principles in energy, transport, construction, resource-intensive manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and waste management. For developed economies, it means restructuring these industries so they become sustainable … In advanced economies, it means, potentially, embracing zero growth… For both developed and developing economies, it means developing a service sector that is decoupled from material extraction or carbon emissions in addition to progress towards resource efficiency and low carbon intensity….….At a global level, if a tax on CO2 emissions were imposed and the resulting revenues were used to cut labour taxes, then up to 14 million net new jobs could be created.”

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder summed up some of these themes in his address to the Ministerial Conference of the Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE), held on January 10 – 11 2019 in South Africa. He stated:  “It is not action against climate change and environmental degradation that will destroy jobs, it is inaction that will destroy jobs. …Economic activity and jobs depend on ecosystem services and a safeguarding of the natural environment. Around 1.2 billion jobs, or 40 per cent of world employment in 2014, were in industries that depend heavily on natural processes.… ultimately, environmental degradation will compromise livelihoods and magnify inequality. We must work around these highly interconnected challenges to devise workable solutions in specific country contexts. “

Global Renewable Energy industry lacks human rights and labour rights protections

Renewable energy BHRRC cover part 2London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) released a new report on September 5th : Renewable Energy Risking Rights & Returns: An analysis of solar, bioenergy & geothermal companies’ human rights commitments  . The report analyses 59 companies’ human rights policies and practices on five key areas: human rights commitment, community consultations, grievance mechanisms, labour rights and supply chain monitoring. It concludes that  “The current level of commitment by the majority of renewable energy companies is insufficient to prevent, address and mitigate human rights harms, especially as the sector rapidly expands.”

Concerning labour rights, only 36% of renewable energy companies were found to have policies committing them to core labour rights such as collective bargaining and freedom of association, 42% commit to  the prohibition of child labour and 41% to prohibition of  forced labour and modern slavery.  An aspect with resonance for Canadians, in light of the recent federal Court of Appeal decision against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, the report found that “less than 30% (17 out of 59) of renewable energy companies have a stated commitment to consultation with communities affected by their projects. Only 8 companies reference indigenous peoples’ rights and 4 companies have a commitment to free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities.”  Overall,  47% of companies do not have basic human rights commitments or processes in place, and only 5 companies met a set of basic criteria on human rights, community consultation and access to remedy. These findings are consistent with a previous BHRRC  survey, reported in 2016.

Based  on its extensive research of the mining industry, BHRRC also states that “failure to respect human rights can result in project delays, legal procedures and costs for renewable energy companies, underlying the urgency to strengthen human rights due diligence.”   It calls for investors to step up their engagement in renewable energy companies to ensure better respect for human rights.

Read the press release here  for a summary of the report, and explore ongoing monitoring of human rights in the renewable energy sector here.

Case studies of Community and human rights impacts of Renewable energy companies, and a ranking of multinationals in Ag/Food, Apparel and Mining

renewable energy investor briefing coverAn April 2017 report from the London-based advocacy group,  Business and Human Rights Resource Centre asks,  “What adverse impacts can renewable energy projects have on communities around the world?”   Renewable Energy investor briefing: Managing risks & responsibilities for impacts on local communities  (April 2017) is directed at financial and investment professionals who are considering investment in renewable energy projects- in this report, comprised of wind and small-to-medium hydro, but excluding solar .  It starts from the premise that Just Transition principles are essential, then explains the international human rights responsibilities of companies.  The report also provides examples of the kinds of questions that should be asked in shareholder meetings and before investment decisions are made, and gives examples of best practice policies – for example, inclusion of community benefits agreements.  One of the main issues it discusses is the right to free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples, which is an ongoing topic monitored by the BHRC.

The report provides case studies, including  six positive examples, including: the Ixtepec community-owned wind project in Mexico; the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm in South Africa; and  a cluster of wind projects in Jämtland, Sweden, for which OECD guidelines are being used in negotiations between the company and affected Indigenous people.  The full suite of case studies is presented in a searchable database which allows searching by company name, issue, country, and more.  There are no Canadian projects included in the 2017 report, although a profile of Ontario Power Generation  is available as part of the Centre’s ongoing database  of human rights in the energy sector  .

In March 2017, the Centre also launched an updated and expanded  Corporate Human Rights Benchmark website , which ranked 98 of the world’s largest publicly traded companies, from the  Agriculture, Apparel, and Extractive industries. The Benchmark is intended to drive a “race to the top” and is directed at business, government, and “ to empower civil society, workers, communities, customers, and the media with better public information to reward, encourage, and promote human rights advances by companies and make well-informed choices about which companies to engage with.”  A 50 page summary report is here .  There are six thematic measurement categories, including “ Company Performance: Human Rights Practices”  which  includes rankings related to living wage, freedom of association and right to bargain collectively, health and safety, amongst others.

Two years after Rana Plaza – the Fashion Industry hangs its hat on Greening, not Labour Rights

On April 24, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and injuring thousands more. Two  years later, according to a report, by Human Rights Watch, working conditions and labour rights are unchanged. However, the garment industry is working to burnish its public image on sustainability issues. The recently-released H&M Conscious Action Sustainability Report 2014, discusses “the challenges” in the industry, which they identify as “Clean water, climate change, textile waste and wages and overtime in supplier factories”. But  in a press release titled, “H&M’s sustainability promises will not deliver a living wage” (Apr. 9) the Clean Clothes Campaign states: “Despite announcing partnership projects with the ILO, education schemes alongside Swedish trade unions, and fair wage rhetoric aplenty, H&M has so far presented disappointingly few concrete results that show progress towards a living wage. H&M are working hard on gaining a reputation in sustainability, but the results for workers on the ground are yet to be seen”. The Clean Clothes Campaign is an alliance of trade unions and NGOs in 16 European countries.

 H&M, along with Target, Gap, and Levi Strauss, has been commended by the Clean by Design program of the National Resource Defense Council for their progress in incorporating environmental performance in their procurement decisions. In April, NRDC also released The Textile Industry Leaps forward with Clean by Design: Less Environmental Impact with Bigger Profits which describes the extent of the pollution in textile mills in China, and highlights  the mills which made operational improvements and achieved the most cost savings, chiefly through increased motor and lighting efficiency, process water reuse, and heat recovery from exhaust.