Washington D.C.’s International Rights Advocates (IRA) has filed a proposed class action lawsuit alleging Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla are “knowingly benefiting” from and “aiding and abetting” the use of young children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to mine cobalt, a vital component in the rechargeable lithium-ion battery found in many electronic devices.
The human rights and corporate accountability watchdog alleges in the 79-page complaint that many DRC children, some as young as six, are forced not only to work “full-time” in “extremely dangerous” jobs but are “regularly maimed and killed” by tunnel collapses and other hazards endemic to cobalt mining in the country. While describing the plaintiffs as representative of children forced by extreme poverty to leave school and become “artisanal” cobalt miners, the lawsuit includes numerous graphic images of young people who the IRA asserts have been maimed as a result of the “extremely primitive conditions” in which miners must work to meet the cobalt demands of tech giants such as the defendants.
According to the lawsuit, the modern tech boom has mirrored past generational treatment of the Congolese people in that a lineage of what the IRA calls “rapacious exploiters” turned to the Congo basin to meet their labor needs. As the lawsuit tells it, tech companies’ entrances into Congo to mine cobalt is adjacent to the colonial slave, ivory and latex trades that devastated the country’s people prior to the DRC’s independence in 1960. Even after the DRC gained independence, the suit continues, the Congolese people suffered through “some of the most corrupt leaders imaginable,” each of whom, the lawsuit says, “stole more than the last while the people of the DRC lived in extreme poverty.”
Despite the DRC’s richness in a number of the minerals needed for the manufacture of tech products, tin, copper, tungsten, gold and tantalum can be found in abundance elsewhere, the lawsuit states. According to the IRA, however, roughly “two-thirds” of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the DRC’s “copper belt” region of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba Provinces. It’s cobalt, the lawsuit argues, that’s brought upon the DRC “the latest wave of cruel exploitation” at the expense of “a population of powerless, starving Congolese people.”
Apple, Google parent company Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla provide “substantial” support to the DRC’s so-called “artisanal” cobalt mining system, the case claims. The companies are alleged in the suit to know and have known “for a significant period of time” that the DRC’s cobalt mining operations were dependent on children working in overtly hazardous conditions for “paltry wages.” Rather than take meaningful action to address reported child cobalt mining in the DRC, however, the defendants, the proposed class action says, set up instead “voluntary programs” the IRA claims are meant to stop themselves from using prohibited child labor within their supply chains. This alone, the IRA argues, is indicative enough of the level of knowledge the complaint says the companies possess about child cobalt mining.
“The fact that these programs were announced is merely evidence that the companies know they have serious child labor and forced labor problems in their DRC supply chains for cobalt and they hoped that this minimal first step would postpone solving the problem,” the case reads.
Each of the pseudonymous plaintiffs who filed the complaint is alleged to have been severely injured in a childhood cobalt mining accident. The plaintiffs’ counsel asserts in the case that they and their research team comprised of child labor and human trafficking experts traveled independently to the DRC’s cobalt mining areas, where they photographed the conditions depicted in the complaint.
All told, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the defendants each year “would not be possible without cobalt mined in the DRC,” the IRA avers. The lawsuit alleges violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, as well as claims of unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.