Near Pweto, Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo: Girl posing for the camera near the shore of Lake Mweru

Child labour scandal in Congo brings on legal headache for major tech firms

Image credit: Alvaro Villanueva - Dreamstime

A handful of major tech companies have been accused of aiding child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), following the death of children working in cobalt mines, in a landmark lawsuit.

US-based human rights group International Rights Advocates filed the legal complaint on behalf of 14 families from Congo on Sunday (December 15).

The lawsuit accuses firms including Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Microsoft and Dell of being complicit in the death of children who were forced to mine cobalt – a metal used to make batteries for phones and computers.

The lawsuit alleges that the US tech giants know - and “have known for a significant” amount of time - that child workers are used in the “dangerous” mines from where the resulting material ends up being used in their products.

Marking the first time the tech industry has jointly faced legal action over the source of its cobalt, the complaint said the firms were part of a system of forced labour that the families claimed led to the death and serious injury of their children.

Images in the court documents, filed in a US District Court in Washington DC, showed children with disfigured or missing limbs. Furthermore, six of the 14 children in the case were killed in tunnel collapses, while others suffered life-altering injuries including paralysis, the complaint said.

“These companies – the richest companies in the world, these fancy gadget-making companies – have allowed children to be maimed and killed to get their cheap cobalt,” said Terrence Collingsworth, an attorney representing the families.

Cobalt is ideal for making the rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products sold by the technology industry. This is because the metal has thermal stability and high energy-density properties. Cathodes made with cobalt also won’t overheat easily or catch fire.

More than half of the world’s cobalt is produced in Congo and, according to a 2018 study by the European Commission, global demand for the metal is expected to increase at 7 per cent to 13 per cent annually over the next decade.

The lawsuit said the children, some as young as six years old, were forced by their families’ extreme poverty to leave school and work in cobalt mining operations owned by the British mining company Glencore, which was previously accused of using child labour in Congo mines in 2012 following an undercover investigation.

Some children were paid as little as $1.50 (£1.13) per day, working six days a week, the complaint added.

The legal complaint argued that the companies all have the ability to overhaul their cobalt supply chains to ensure safer conditions.

“I’ve never encountered or documented a more severe asymmetry in the allocation of income between the top of the supply chain and the bottom,” said Siddharth Kara, a researcher on modern slavery. “It’s that disconnect that makes this perhaps the worst injustice of slavery and child exploitation that I’ve seen in my two decades of research.”

In response to a request for comment, Dell said in an email that it has “never knowingly sourced operations” using child labour and has launched an investigation into the allegations.

A spokesperson for Glencore said: “Glencore notes the allegations contained in a US lawsuit filed on 15 December 2019. Glencore’s production of cobalt in the DRC is a by-product of our industrial copper production. Glencore’s operations in the DRC do not purchase or process any artisanally mined ore.”

The spokesperson added that the company “does not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labour”.

At the time of this story's publication, Tesla, Apple, Google and Microsoft had not responded to the allegations.

More than 40 million people have been estimated to be captive in modern slavery, which includes forced labour and forced marriage, according to Australian-based human rights group Walk Free and the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO).

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