In the first lawsuit of its kind, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla are being sued on behalf of 14 Congolese families whose children were killed or permanently injured while illegally mining cobalt for electronics made by these companies.
Filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia by human rights group International Rights Advocates, the federal class-action lawsuit alleges the companies "aided and abetted" a system of forced child labor and had "specific knowledge" of the conditions these children were working in but did not act to protect their profit margins.
"Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla all have specific policies claiming to prohibit child labour in their supply chains," said International Rights Advocates in the complaint. "Their failure to actually implement these policies to stop forced child labour in cobalt mining is an intentional act to avoid ending the windfall of getting cheap cobalt."
Cobalt is an important component of lithium-ion batteries that are used in many modern electronics. In the lawsuit, the families argue that their children were illegally working at cobalt mines owned by Glencore, the world's largest cobalt producer. Glencore then supplied cobalt to Umicore, a Belgian mining company and metals trader. Umicore then provided cobalt for lithium-ion batteries to Apple, Google, Tesla, and Dell. Also implicated is Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese cobalt producer, which works with Apple, Dell, and Microsoft.
By now, the relationship between cobalt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and child labor is well-trodden territory. Last year, the Democratic Republic of Congo produced between 60 and 70 percent of the world’s cobalt—a third of that was “artisanal” or subsistence mining, independently done outside formal employment with a mining company.
Cobalt is an essential mineral for advanced electronics—necessary for the lithium batteries that power smartphones, personal computers, and electric vehicles. While these batteries may power renewable technologies necessary to avoid climate apocalypse, making them is not without its own problems: Cobalt mining is done at great cost to the miners, their communities, and their ecosystems.
In the complaint, the Congolese families go into vivid detail explaining how abject poverty made them desperate enough to work at the mines, paid as little as $2 a day for dangerous and demanding work in conditions.
In one instance, a child went to work in a Glencore-owned mine after his family could no longer afford his school fees. A tunnel collapsed on him and his body was never recovered, according to the lawsuit. Another child, who also worked in a Glencore-owned mine, fell into a mine but after being dragged out by other miners, was left alone until his parents found him. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. Others still say tunnel collapses killed their children, broke their spines, or maimed their limbs. None of them were compensated for deaths or injuries, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit is clear in its allegations that these companies knowingly entered into business with the mining firms despite knowledge of their child labor supply chains and is seeking damages for their forced labor, but also for "unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Apple and other companies have said in recent years that they’ve taken steps to not work with mines that use child labor, but time and time again, reporters and international nonprofits have shown that the global supply chain is convoluted to the point that it is difficult to be sure exactly who is doing the mining.