Steel’s tensile strength and low cost can have a high human cost

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As a primary and preferred structural building material, steel combines tensile strength with low cost, but can also have a high human cost. There are many points of potential forced labor along the steel supply chain due to the hazardous conditions and lack of transparency ranging from extraction and smelting to production, rolling, and erecting.1 Steel service centers, through which an estimated 70% of steel flows from mills to end users, are an important pivot point in the supply chain.2

Steel, an alloy of iron with carbon and other minerals, has a two-pronged production method that traditionally first adds concentrated carbon to 4.5% by adding coke to mineral iron and fluxes (e.g., nickel, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, titanium, vanadium, or tungsten) to create pig iron. Thereafter, carbon is reduced through high-intensity furnaces and, with the addition of further fluxes/ precursors, iron converts into steel.3

The route used for most U.S. domestic production is via the “mini-mill” method, which converts steel scraps, pig iron ingots, and additional fluxes into “recycled” steel.4 Either production method can add another smelting step, with additional additives like boron and other fluxes to customize the properties of the steel. Charcoal made from trees is used to smelt mineral iron and limestone.

Global steel production averages 1.6 billion tons of crude steel every year, approximately half in China mills.5 The myriad components are extracted from many countries, including Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Mexico, and Pakistan. All six of these countries have been identified by the U.S. Department of State as countries known to use forced labor in their mining industries.6

After extraction, there are a number of stages and locations involved in steel-making: production mills with comparably dangerous conditions that are a part of the steel production chain ranging through coke making, iron making, steel making, steel recycling, continuous casting, and rolling/finishing, with routing to service centers.

Brazil: Brazil’s iron and steel industries are dependent on charcoal found to be produced by slave labor in rural areas such as the western state of Maranhão and the Amazon jungle state of Pará. As a major exporter of pig iron, the Brazilian government has attempted to address slave labor within the industry, particularly through the Mobile Inspection Team. Yet, effective monitoring is limited, and many instances of forced labor and/or hazardous working conditions are still reported and going undetected due to new tactics to reduce the size of raw material operations.7

China: As the world’s leading producer of iron and steel, China has been found to rely on forced labor in extraction of its raw materials. Forced labor coal mining in China typically occurs in prison or re-education camps. Coal is also imported from North Korea, where state-imposed labor is utilized, and Mongolia, where forced labor is prevalent in the mining industry. China is also reported to import workers from North Korea, effectively sourcing state-sponsored forced labor.8

Colombia: Coking coal mined in Colombia is a primary source of carbon used in the steel-making process. To address child labor that is actively used in typically hazardous mines throughout the country, the Ministry of Labor launched training for labor inspectors last year resulting in eight upheld sanctions for child labor violations, yet significant gaps in oversight in insecure rural regions remain.9

India: Although India has modernized its steel industry and has grown to be the second largest steel producer behind China,10 there continues to be widespread evidence of human rights and forced labor violations in illegal iron ore mining operations. Despite the Mines Act of 1952 specifically forbidding child labor (under the age of 18) to occur above ground, below ground, or to even be in the vicinity of the mines, it has proliferated without enforcement in coal, iron ore, and bauxite mines.11

Mica is used as a high-performance insulator in the steel industry for reducing cracks and as one of the largest producers in the world, it is also documented to be dependent on the small hands of children. Seventy percent of all India’s mica production is estimated to be sourced from illegal, hazardous mines. Although touted as an environmentally-friendly material, an examination of who is extracting mica from the earth, and under what conditions, is not considered for this widely used mineral in construction.12

Mexico: Iron ore mining in Mexico is a highly lucrative business for drug cartels that export ore to Chinese mills.13 As the organized crime epidemic has infiltrated the industry, miners have been left with few labor protections, leaving them exposed to violence, human trafficking, and other human rights abuses.

Pakistan: Although bonded labor has been illegal in Pakistan since 1992, forced labor in Pakistan, primarily in the form of debt bondage, is prevalent in the growing coal mining industry, as well as the over 25,000 brick kilns, without nationally coordinated oversight for exploited children. Reports estimate that 70% of bonded laborers working in brutal conditions are children who are also frequently subjected to sexual exploitation. Evidence of children working in life-threatening mines have been documented this year in Balochistan.14, 15

  1. Supply Chain. World Steel Association.
  2. Steel Supply Chain, Service Centers. American Institute of Steel Construction.
  3. American Iron and Steel Institute. How Steel Is Made.
  4. S & P Global Platts. “U.S. Steel Sector Thrives as Mills Move Up Quality Ladder,” S & P Global Platts Insights. May 9, 2019.
  5. 2020 World Steel in Figures, World Steel Association. 2020.
  6. Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. Department of State. 2020.
  7. Slavery Modernises, Adapts to Stay Alive in Brazil, Inter Press Service. March 5, 2020.
  8. Global Slavery Index, Minderoo Foundation. 2018.
  9. 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. Colombia. U.S. Department of Labor.
  10. Indian Steel Industry Report, India Brand Equity Foundation. August, 2020.
  11. Violation of Children’s Rights in the Extractive Industries in India, Dhaatri Resource Centre for Women and Children. August 2016.
  12. Blood Mica: Deaths of child workers in India’s mica ‘ghost’ mines covered up to keep industry alive, Thomson Reuters, August 2, 2016.
  13. Vella, Heidi. “Cartel Culture — Mexico’s War Against Illegal Mining,” Mining Technology. May 26, 2014.
  14. 2019 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor: Pakistan. U.S. Department of Labor.
  15. Baloch, Shah Meer and Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “Coal workers are orphans’: the children and slaves mining Pakistan’s coal,” The Guardian. February 19, 2020.