Will Electric Car Boom Leave Workers and Environment in the Dust?

Michelle Chen

Electric vehicle recharging point in London

While Libya’s turmoil rocks global oil prices and nuclear meltdown threatens Japan, clean energy is getting some well-deserved attention these days. The ultimate symbol of the green industrial promise is the much-hyped electric car, now pushing steadily into the global marketplace, and with models like the Volt, seemingly poised to to zoom full-throttle into the future.

But some activists have popped open the hood to expose shady corporate practices that may be holding back progress toward a greener economy. And as we’ve seen in the global ripple effect of the disaster in Japan, no matter how slick the technology, the sustainability of any product is only as strong as the weakest link in the supply chain, which is, after all, tied to real people and real places.

Ideally, a car that runs on a rechargeable battery powered by renewable fuel would curb carbon emissions and rid our streets of dirty exhaust. But that impeccably green image is just the tail-end of a massive global production pipeline, which advocates say could generate just as much destruction as the gas guzzlers the industry seeks to replace.

SOMO, a Netherlands-based consumer advocacy group, says corporations must be held accountable for environmental and social impacts at each point in the production process, from the mining of precious ores to the last rivet on the assembly line. An electric car’s green veneer may hide old industrial practices that exploit workers and vulnerable communities.

Presenting the group’s new report on the electric car industry, SOMO researcher Tim Steinweg surmised, the supply chain of many of our consumer products cause grave damage to people and the environment around the world. The electric car battery supply chain is no exception.”

The problems start deep underground, where an element that is essential to battery production, lithium, has become a red-hot commodity for the mining sector and the industries linked to it. The growing thirst for lithium has opened up countries like Bolivia to potential predation by multinational firms.

The supply chain then leads to China’s vast industrial landscape, where workers face extremely taxing working conditions and some of the lowest wages in the world.

SOMO calls attention to the potential consequences of the growing scramble to claim the world’s lithium hotspots, located primarily in South America as well as China and Afghanistan.

As the electric car industry gears up for the mainstream markets, Bolivia (the so-called Saudi Arabia of Lithium”) has become ground zero for various turf battles that pit locals, particularly communities in the tourist and farming sectors, against both foreign companies and government agencies. In addition, the environmental impact of large-scale lithium mining could disrupt local ecosystems, sap critical water supplies and encroach on traditional farming livelihoods.

Battery production is also due to ramp up demand for other minerals strewn across the Global South, opening more avenues for extraction in sensitive or volatile regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, in Shenzhen, SOMO examined the working conditions at Build Your Dreams, one of China’s premiere battery manufacturers. While the company provides relatively decent conditions for employees, civil society watchdogs have documented evidence of workers being driven to work exhausting shifts, sometimes violating overtime rules, with virtually no access to union representation.

SOMO’s report is not a strike against electric cars, but it is a rare initiative to broaden the conversation in the environmental community to foreground labor and social responsibility issues facing the communities most affected by this budding industry. If society is to embrace green automotives, then government regulators, manufacturers and consumers all have a responsibility to keep their eyes on the supply chain from start to finish, lest we blindly pursue dreams of electric joyrides by mowing down the communities left behind.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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