Tesla, BYD, and VW use EV battery minerals with a history of human rights abuse allegations

Mining for minerals used to make EVs and batteries is plagued with allegations of abuse, the latest report from the nonprofit Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) shows. And automakers continue to source materials from some of the worst offenders, The Verge finds.

BHRRC has documented 631 allegations of human rights abuses since 2010 for seven key minerals used in electric vehicles, rechargeable batteries, and renewable energy technologies. Many of the allegations were made against a small group of companies, which The Verge was able to link to three of the world’s biggest EV manufacturers: Volkswagen Group, Tesla, and BYD.

“Things are not improving,” said Caroline Avan, head of natural resources and just transition at BHRRC. The need for more renewable energy and clean transportation is evident, but those technologies shouldn’t come at the expense of people who live and work in places where companies source their raw materials, she said.

“Things are not improving.”

“The fight against climate change is a human rights imperative at this point in time, but it should not be seen as a license to just disregard human rights in mining operations,” Avan said.

An electric vehicle requires about six times as many minerals as a typical gas-guzzling car. Demand for critical minerals used in EVs and battery storage for renewable energy could grow tenfold by 2040, under a conservative estimate by the International Energy Agency. Scrambling to secure all those minerals without taking the time to make sure they’re mined humanely is where problems arise.

BHRRC’s latest report includes potential abuses linked to the mining of seven minerals: bauxite, cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, and zinc. It’s been tracking those allegations since 2019 using publicly available records, including court documents and regulatory resources, as well as reports from other nongovernmental organizations and media outlets.

It found 91 more allegations in the past year alone, including a “marked increase in labour rights violations and worker deaths” that made up roughly 40 percent of the new allegations in 2023. Across its entire data set going back to 2010, labor violations including 53 work-related deaths make up a quarter of all allegations. For 2023, alleged attacks against human rights defenders, water pollution, and threats to water access are also glaring issues.

It found 91 more allegations in the past year alone, including a “marked increase in labour rights violations and worker deaths”

Since 2010, more than half of the allegations were made against just 10 companies. State-owned China Minmetals now leads the pack, topping Swiss multinational mining giant Glencore, which ranked highest over the past two years.

Combing through sustainability reports and media coverage of the world’s top three EV manufacturers, The Verge found a history of deals with Glencore and China Minmetals.

To drive its EV ambitions, Volkswagen entered into an agreement with Glencore and battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd (CATL) back in 2017, Reuters reported. Under the agreement, CATL would buy 20,000 metric tons of cobalt products from Glencore for Volkswagen’s EV batteries.

In 2023, VW’s battery division PowerCo initially agreed to back a SPAC deal alongside Glencore and Stellantis to buy nickel and copper mines in Brazil — although the deal reportedly fell through later that year over price squabbles. Volkswagen has also identified gold sourced by Glencore in its supply chain, according to its 2023 Responsible Raw Materials Report. The company declined to comment on BHRRC’s findings but has said that it is working to comply with Germany’s new Supply Chain Due Diligence Act.

Tesla buys nickel from a Glencore mine in Australia and cobalt from two Glencore mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo according to the company’s 2021 and 2022 impact reports. In 2022, workers at one of those cobalt mines spoke to The Verge about unsafe working conditions without adequate water or breaks and with little food or pay. Cobalt is often called “the blood diamond of batteries” because of the dangers workers face mining it.

Neither Tesla nor Glencore responded immediately to requests for comment from The Verge. Tesla’s 2022 impact report explains that the company conducts audits of its suppliers to improve working conditions at each site and make sure “corrective actions” are taken to address any problems. It touts “working with suppliers where issues are found rather than walking away.”

In the year since then, China’s BYD overtook Tesla to become the world’s biggest seller of EVs — despite its vehicles being unavailable in the US due to high tariffs. China Minmetals also inched past Glencore this year, racking up more allegations of abuse than any other company in BHRRC’s report.

BYD doesn’t name its more than 10,000 suppliers in its 2023 CSR report (Tesla and Volkswagen only give a partial list in their reports). But China Minmetals subsidiary Hunan Changyuan Lico is reportedly one of BYD’s lithium battery material suppliers. BYD didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

A separate report by environmental and human rights groups published in February ranked car companies based on how much progress they’ve made to eliminate environmental harms and human rights abuses. Tesla ranked third highest, behind Ford and Mercedes-Benz, in that assessment. Volkswagen ranked sixth, and BYD came in 16th out of 18 companies.

Automakers certainly aren’t the only industry with a lot of work to do to prevent abuse along their supply chains. Rechargeable batteries that power many of the gadgets in our lives are made with a lot of the same materials cited in these reports.

Governments, mining companies, and manufacturers who buy their goods all need to take action to stop abuse, BHRRC’s Avan says. That includes adopting policies that make human rights a priority and that empower people to have a say in projects that might affect their communities.

“[When it comes to] a lot of egregious and gross negligence in occupational health and safety at mining sites, this is not rocket science. Those things can be fixed,” Avan says. “What [manufacturers] should be doing is engaging with the mining sector, asking questions, and putting in front of them the requirements and expectations for better protection of human rights.”

The Verge reached out for comment to each of the 10 companies BHRRC lists as having the most human rights allegations against them. Three of them replied to say that they respond to allegations of abuse and implement changes accordingly, including Freeport-McMoRan, Solway Group, and Tenke Fungurume Mining.

Neither China Minmetals nor Glencore immediately replied to The Verge’s request for comment. But a spokesperson for Glencore commented on BHRRC’s report last year in an email to The Verge to say, “Our assets are located in diverse contexts, some .. in more challenging socio-political circumstances with a history of conflict, limited basic services, and weak rule of law … we work in partnership with government, civil society and development agencies to share knowledge, build capacity and contribute to enduring social and economic outcomes.”


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