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Future plans to mine resources from the Moon or asteroids raises questions about who will do that work. (credit: ESA)

Exploitation beyond our planet: the risks of forced labor in space mining

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I work in two subjects: human trafficking (or modern slavery, as that increasingly seems to be the preferred term) and space law (here, last time I checked it is still called space law). Currently, they are dominated by two issues that link the two fields together: forced labor and mining.

In the field of human trafficking, we report a new reality. The number of identified victims who have been exploited for forced labor is higher than other forms of exploitation according to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report. It is a contrast to previous statistics, where sexual exploitation claimed by far the highest numbers of victims. We don’t need to look far for examples or products of forced labor: a car wash on our street, the smartphone in our pocket. Particularly prevalent is the level of exploitation in mining, as evidenced in a latest book by Siddharth Kara, Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives.

Who is going to do the mining and some of the other dirty work? The buildup of the massive infrastructure around the 2022 World Cup in Qatar could offer some insight: the vulnerable.

Mining is also one of the hottest topics for space lawyers and space companies, as the final frontier may soon become the latest destination for mining companies. As space technology continues to advance rapidly and our comprehension of the composition of celestial bodies improves, the exploitation of space resources has become a progressively significant subject. Asteroids contain, among other things, vast amounts of iron, nickel, gold, and platinum group metals, which can be used for construction and electronics. As NASA stated a decade ago, “The asteroid belt has a billion times more platinum than is found on Earth. There is literally a billion times the metal that is on Earth.”

All this promises high returns. As reported in the Harvard International Review, “Mining just the top 10 most cost-effective asteroids–that is, those that are both closest to Earth and greatest in value–would produce a profit of around US$1.5 trillion.” It added that the main-belt asteroid Psyche “has been reported to contain US$700 quintillion worth of gold, enough for every person on earth to receive about US$93 billion.” Rock and soil on the Moon contains helium-3, which is said to be a valuable resource in the future if nuclear fusion becomes feasible. It is no wonder companies want to mine space rock and roll in the profits.

When exactly we are going to start mining is still debatable. But full-scale preparation is taking place. Companies such as AstroForge proclaim that their mission is to make space resources available on Earth. In the education sector, Colorado School of Mines established the world’s first graduate program in space resources in 2017, which offers master's and PhD degrees in this field. The Asteroid Mining Corporation states, “We are a space resources company currently developing robotic and satellite platforms to enable the exploration and extraction of off-world resources, including from asteroids.”

And so, space mining is no longer a matter of futuristic fantasy, but rather one of tomorrow. In many countries, national laws are in place to support this. Currently, the United States, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, and Luxembourg have developed supporting national legislation on space mining, including confirming its legality, which for some remains a contested subject. With these national legislations in place, perhaps it is one of those rare cases where the law is ahead of technology—unlike, for example, in AI. But the technology is almost there, revving up its engines.

It sounds exciting, like a giant step for humanity and it may even solve a lot of our resource, energy, and environmental problems on Earth.

Space mining operations would likely take place in remote and isolated locations, where workers may be cut off from the outside world. This could make it difficult for them to seek help or report any abuse.

Exciting opportunities should be embraced, but also questioned. Who is going to do the mining and some of the other dirty work? The buildup of the massive infrastructure around the 2022 World Cup in Qatar could offer some insight: the vulnerable. My premise is that the possibility of forced labor in space mining cannot be entirely ruled out. Will humans be needed for mining? It appears so. Of course, no one knows for sure what the first asteroid mine will look like, but there is the assumption that human involvement will be needed.

Mining has been a crucial industry for human civilization since the beginning of time, providing raw materials for tools, weapons, and infrastructure. However, throughout history, the mining industry has often relied on forced labor to extract these valuable resources. From the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome to the colonial empires of Europe, enslaved people and indentured workers were often forced to work in mines, enduring dangerous and inhumane conditions. Recent times are also ample with examples (just look at International Labour Organization reports). For example, gold mining in the Western, Central, and Ashanti Regions of Ghana is tainted with forced labor. Despite efforts to improve working conditions and prevent forced labor, the mining industry continues to struggle with this dark legacy.

Of course, not all companies will want to exploit workers for profit, but the point is that the existing legal and market system makes it easy for them to do so if they are so inclined. This is for three reasons:

  1. As space mining is a new industry, there is currently a lack of regulation, oversight, and accountability as regards who will be doing the mining.
  2. Like with many instances of forced labor we have seen through history or today (e.g., Uighurs locked away in camps) space mining operations would likely take place in remote and isolated locations, where workers may be cut off from the outside world. This could make it difficult for them to seek help or report any abuse.
  3. Space mining operations will be very expensive to set up and run, and companies may face stiff competition to extract resources. To cut costs and increase profits, some companies may resort to exploiting workers or engaging in forced labor practices.

The counter argument to the risk of labor exploitation in space is easy to imagine: the technical expertise that comes with undertaking mining on an asteroid is different to the skills required to build a football stadium or to dig up cobalt. Companies will be sending people up there who, in all likelihood, are not vulnerable and can be exploited. They will be paid a lot. Yes, that is true: the first miners to go up will probably benefit from eye-watering financial compensation and maybe even fame. For a time. But then what? What does space mining in 2062 look like? History asks us to err on the side of caution.

With the increasing interest in space exploration and the potential for mining valuable resources from asteroids and other celestial bodies, there is growing concern about the possibility of forced labor being used in space mining operations. As companies and governments around the world begin to invest in this new frontier, it is important to ask ourselves whether the principles of fair labor practices will be upheld in space.

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