Up to 60% of the world's cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo © Corbis/Getty Images
Up to 60% of the world's cobalt originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo © Corbis/Getty Images

Tech giants sued over child deaths in cobalt mines

18 December 2019

Tech firms Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla are accused of “knowingly benefiting” from child labour in cobalt supply chains. 

International Rights Advocates, a non-profit that provides legal support, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of 14 families from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with children who were either killed or seriously injured mining for cobalt.

According to the complaint, child cobalt miners as young as six years old are working in “exceedingly harsh, hazardous, and toxic conditions”.

The complaint accused the tech firms of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in DRC to mine cobalt”.

“The supply chain is, by design, hidden and secretive to allow all participants to profit from cheap cobalt mined under extremely hazardous conditions by desperate children forced to perform extremely hazardous labor without safety equipment of any kind,” it said. 

The demand for cobalt, which is a key component in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars, laptops and smartphones, has tripled in the last five years and is expected to double again by 2020. 

Up to 60% of the world’s cobalt originates from the DRC and a fifth of this is mined by artisanal miners. The extraction process has been linked to human rights abuses and child labour. 

While all of the tech firms have “voluntary programmes” to prevent the use of child and forced labour in their supply chains, they have yet to take “meaningful action to prevent further deaths”, International Rights Advocates said. 

“The companies are intentionally failing to exercise the required due diligence because it is in their interests to hide behind the ventures they have formed and obtain a steady supply of cheap cobalt,” the complaint continued. 

Two mining companies, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and Glencore, were also mentioned in the complaint as owners of the minefields where the families alleged their children worked.

A Glencore spokesperson said: “We do not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labour in our supply chain. We support and respect human rights in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Glencore does not purchase, process or trade any artisanally mined cobalt or copper.  

“We recognise that artisanal mining is prevalent in the DRC and presents risks, particularly for children. As part of our broader strategy as a responsible corporate citizen in the country, we are engaging with the government and other stakeholders to find a sustainable solution.”

A Google spokesperson said: “Child labour and endangerment is unacceptable and our supplier code of conduct strictly prohibits this activity. We are committed to sourcing all materials ethically and eliminating child mining in global supply chains. As an active member of the Responsible Minerals Initiative, we work alongside our suppliers, other companies, and industry groups to drive efforts in and beyond the DRC.” 

Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Tesla, and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt have been contacted for comment.

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