New US legislation would ban imported products containing critical green transition minerals extracted through child labor in Congo
The bill targets China, which sponsors New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith, says it uses forced labor and exploits children to mine cobalt in the impoverished but resource-rich Central African country.
Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a mineral used to make lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, a key pillar of President Joe Biden’s climate plans. China controls the majority of Congo’s cobalt mines, strengthening Beijing’s position in the global supply chain for electric vehicles and other products.
“On the backs of trafficked and child laborers, the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast cobalt resources to fuel its economy and global agenda,” Smith’s office said in a statement following the bill’s introduction on Friday.
The legislation comes amid strained ties between the US and China. Biden last month referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “dictator” during a fundraiser, sparking outrage from Beijing. That follows tensions over a Chinese surveillance balloon that the US government shot down, US-led restrictions on China’s access to advanced computer chips, and Taiwan’s status and security.
But the Biden administration is trying to ease those tensions with a visit to China this week from US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, following Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day stop in Beijing last month.
China has a 68% stake in Sicomines, the copper and cobalt joint venture with Congolese state-owned mining company Gecamines, following a 2008 infrastructure-for-minerals deal, which Congo is now seeking to review amid concerns it is taking too little advantage of the agreement.
Congo is also Africa’s largest producer of copper, and lithium has recently been found there – also important components of EV batteries.
The extraction of the minerals has been linked to child and exploitative labour, environmental abuse and safety risks. In a 2016 report, Amnesty International blamed Chinese companies for child labor in Congo’s cobalt mining industry and multinational technology companies for not addressing the negative human rights issue in their supply chains.
U.S. law prohibits the importation of “goods, commodities, articles or merchandise containing metals or minerals, especially cobalt and lithium and their derivatives, mined, produced, smelted or processed in whole or in part by child or forced labor into the DRC,” Smith’s office said.
The measure also requires the president to identify and impose sanctions, including visa and transaction bans, on foreign actors who facilitate and exploit child labor in Congo.
To top it all off for US production, an Australian mining company that was set to open the only cobalt mine in the US halted construction on the Idaho project in March, citing falling cobalt prices due to competition from China and the Congo.
Jervois Global CEO Bryce Crocker said the company expects to complete construction and commissioning of the mine when cobalt prices recover.
The US Department of Defense has awarded the company $15 million for drilling and a feasibility study of a cobalt refinery in the US. Cobalt is considered a critical mineral by the US government due to its use in the military and energy sectors.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed.
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