Blockchain, a digital lender of sorts that’s known for tracking transactions of totally real cryptocurrency, could also be used for something that isn’t dumb and fake: to help ensure child labor isn’t being used to mine crucial minerals for electric car batteries, according to a report from Reuters.
Lithium-ion batteries for electric cars require significant amounts of cobalt, and more than half of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country rankled by corruption. Demand for cobalt is booming, but the auto industry’s electric vehicle supply chain is tainted by allegations that mines in the DNC employ children as young as seven.
As such, companies are facing increased pressure to ensure their supply chain is free of human rights abuses. The blockchain pilot program presents one possibility on how to address the issue.
Here’s how Reuters says it would work:
The plan for the Congo pilot scheme is to give each sealed bag of cobalt produced by a vetted artisanal miner a digital tag which is entered on blockchain using a mobile phone, along with details of the weight, date, time and perhaps a photo.
At the next stage, a trader buying the bag would record the details on blockchain, and the process would be repeated until the ore gets to the smelter - leaving an immutable record of the cobalt’s journey for downstream buyers or third parties to view.
The pilot will involve organizations throughout the supply chain, from on-the-ground monitors checking that sites are not using child labor, through the refining process to end users, according to people helping to develop the scheme.
Blockchain technology’s already in use by the diamond industry, Reuters says, but cobalt’s a more complicated endeavor. In particular, the concept hinges on monitoring “informal” mine sites and requires buy-in from every company in the supply chain, according to the news outlet.
And the process begins in a country “plagued by lawlessness,” Reuters adds.
One potential risk in the supply chain is that cobalt mined by children gets mixed with “clean” cobalt before processing.
Still, it’s a novel idea—and groups involved in raising awareness about the use of child labor are open to it, albeit with some hesitation.
“You have to be wary of technological solutions to problems that are also political and economic, but blockchain may help. We’re not against it,” Amnesty International researcher Mark Dummett told Reuters. Amnesty produced an expansive report in 2016 on the alleged use of child labor in the development of electric car batteries.
Car companies have taken some light measures to address the issue, but I’d be interested to see what they think of this. I worry the logistics of it alone could make the process easily corruptible, but it’s encouraging to see groups thinking through solutions like this—however out-of-the-box they might seem.