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Tech giants sued over child labour, deaths and injuries in cobalt mining in the DRC

Apple, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla are among the tech companies named in a lawsuit brought in the US by the families of children killed and maimed in cobalt mining activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A landmark lawsuit has been launched against the world’s largest technology firms in the US District Court in Washington DC by the human rights NGO International Rights Advocates on behalf of Congolese families. The latter allege that their children were killed or maimed while mining for an expensive chemical called cobalt used to power smartphones, laptops and electric car batteries. The legal case has been brought against companies of the size and calibre of Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Dell, Microsoft and Tesla.

Read more: Artisanal and small-scale mining in Africa, the environmental and human costs of a vital livelihood source

cobalt mining tunnel drc lawsuit
This disused cobalt mining tunnel was deserted after a heavy rainstorm made it too dangerous to enter. The tunnel is about 20 metres deep © FairPhone/Flickr

Cobalt mining in Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone produces more than 50 per cent of the world’s cobalt and around 20 per cent of it is extracted by hand through a process known as artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), according to a recent report available on ResearchGate. The remainder is produced in large industrial mines typically owned by foreign firms, many of which are Chinese.

The lawsuit’s text states that giant tech companies are “knowingly benefiting from and providing substantial support to this ‘artisanal’ mining system in the DRC. Defendants know and have known for a significant period of time the reality that DRC’s cobalt mining sector is dependent upon children, with males performing the most hazardous work in the primitive cobalt mines, including tunnel digging”.

It further claims that children are “forced by extreme poverty to leave school and pursue the only economic option in their region of the DRC – become ‘artisanal’ cobalt miners” and are paid as little as two dollars a day to dig for cobalt rocks with primitive tools in underground tunnels: a strenuous and dangerous activity. Families and injured children are seeking damages for forced child labour as well as “unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress”. Experts point out that this is the first time multiple tech companies have faced legal action in a single lawsuit that questions the legality of their cobalt provision.

Read more: Human rights and child labour. Amnesty accuses computer and smartphone battery manufacturer

Child labour and death in the lawsuit against tech firms

In the suit, International Rights Advocates claims that “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 labour without safety equipment of any kind”.

One (anonymous) plaintiff identified as Jane Doe 1 says she’s the legal guardian of her nephew, James Doe 1, who started working at age 15 as a “human mule”, carrying bags of rocks containing cobalt weighing more than 30 kilos on his back for 70 cents to 95 cents of a US dollar per day. When James Doe 1 died, he was working inside a tunnel at the mine. Other children began running out of it because they were scared by some soldiers who were entering. James Doe 1 also began crawling to try to leave the mine tunnel but it collapsed and killed him immediately.

Another child, described as John Doe 1, says he started working in the mines when he was nine. The lawsuit claims that earlier in 2019 he was working as a human mule for Kamoto Copper Company, carrying bags of cobalt rocks for 75 cents a day, when he fell into a tunnel. After he was dragged out by fellow workers, he says he was left alone on the ground at the mining site until his parents heard about the accident and arrived to help him. He’s now paralysed from the chest down and will never walk again. Yet another complainant says they worked at mines owned by Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, a major Chinese firm, which the lawsuit claims supplies Apple, Dell and Microsoft and (likely) the other companies mentioned in the lawsuit.

John Doe 3 was leaving the mining area on his motorbike loaded with three bags of cobalt with a total weight of at least 210 kilos. As he was merging onto the main road, he was hit by a large cobalt transport truck and lost his leg © International Rights Advocacy

Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants cobalt out of his batteries

While electric car owners may feel happy about cutting carbon emissions, the dark side of the green revolution is embodied in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, widely used in such vehicles, which have been labelled the “blood diamond of batteries“. However, Tesla CEO and co-founder Elon Musk has tweeted that batteries in the Tesla Model 3 car use less than 3 per cent of cobalt, adding that the next generation battery “will use none”. On their part, automobile manufacturer Ford, technology firm IBM, cathode manufacturer LG Chem and China-based Huayou Cobalt have teamed up to launch a blockchain project to track cobalt supplies from the DRC. Overseen by sourcing group RCS Global, it aims to help manufacturers ensure that cobalt used in lithium-ion batteries has been extracted and produced respecting workers and human rights.

Eliminating child labour in mines

Furthermore, the government of the DRC says it’s trying to stop children from working in artisanal cobalt mines and has made a commitment to eliminating child labour in the mining sector by 2025. This new strategy is thought to be a direct response to a report by Amnesty International released last year which exposed the human rights abuses behind the global cobalt trade. If left unchecked, the world’s hunger for electronics will keep feeding demand for cobalt and poor children in Congo will continue to die. The lawsuit brought by their families, however, gives voice to their suffering and hope that their demands will be met so that justice may be served.

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