Several Big Tech companies have been named in a lawsuit filed by 14 families in the Democratic Republic of Congo who accuse the technology companies of benefiting from cobalt child mining. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the families by International Rights Advocates (IR Advocates), an organization that says it promotes human rights and corporate accountability through legal advocacy and capacity building.

IR Advocates, on behalf of the Congolese families, names Apple Inc., Alphabet, Inc. (which is the parent company of Google LLC), Dell Technologies Inc., Microsoft Inc., and Tesla Inc. as defendants in the lawsuit filed on 15 December 2019 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

"Defendants Apple Inc. (“Apple”), Alphabet, Inc. (“Alphabet”)(which is the parent company of Google LLC)(“Google”), Dell Technologies Inc. (“Dell”), Microsoft Inc. (“Microsoft”), and Tesla Inc. (“Tesla”) are knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) to mine cobalt, a key component of every rechargeable lithium-ion battery used in the electronic devices these companies manufacture. The young children mining Defendants’ cobalt are not merely being forced to work full-time, extremely dangerous mining jobs at the expense their educations and futures; they are being regularly maimed and killed by tunnel collapses and other known hazards common to cobalt mining in the DRC."

A photo of one of the plaintiff's (a child) crushed legs as a result of apparently mining cobalt in a tunnel with no supports for Congo Dongfang Mining, which is part of Huayou Cobalt, which sells cobalt to Defendants Apple and Microsoft. Source: International Rights Advocates

Conflict minerals

Cobalt, along with coltan which is another mineral found in abundance in the DRC, is a critical component in the making of modern jet engines, smartphones, and electric cars. With the growing popularity of both smartphones (and other mobile devices) and growing interest and adoption of electric cars, the demand for cobalt and coltan is ever-growing.

Although cobalt can be found in various countries around the world, it is the DRC which has the highest number of cobalt reserves.

World cobalt reserves as of 2017. | Statista

"The modern tech boom brought on a new wave of brutal exploitation to the people of the DRC. The DRC is particularly rich in many minerals needed for the manufacture of the various products made by Defendants Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla. The DRC is rich in tin, copper, tungsten, gold, and tantalum, but these minerals are widely available in other places. On the other hand, approximately two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt is mined in the “copper belt” region of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba Provinces in the DRC. Cobalt is a key component of every rechargeable lithium-ion battery in all of the gadgets made by Defendants and all other tech and electric car companies in the world, 2 that has brought on the latest wave of cruel exploitation fueled by greed, corruption and indifference to a population of powerless, starving Congolese people," reads paragraph 4 of the lawsuit.

Big Tech mostly silent on cobalt child mining

To date, not many of the Big Tech companies named as defendants in the lawsuit by the families from the DRC have said much, or do much, about the use of children in the mining of cobalt by some of their suppliers. Only Apple, during 2017, stated that it would start treating cobalt mined in the DRC as a conflict mineral.

At the time, Apple said that it had instructed smelters it uses to stop buying cobalt from artisanal mines that use child labor as the owner of the accused mines, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, continues to investigate the allegations. Whether this has been implemented and carried through or not, is not known.

Most of the mines are said to be owned by Glencore by IR Advocates, however, the mining company issued a statement clarifying that it doesn't own some of the cobalt mines and that it supports and respects human rights in a manner consistent with the universal declaration of human rights.

"By supporting and enabling a system that relies on forced child labor for higher profits, and that allows children to become maimed or to die in cobalt mining accidents, Defendants committed acts which were intended to cause Plaintiffs to suffer severe emotional distress. In the alternative, Defendants engaged in the conduct with reckless disregard of the probability of causing Plaintiffs to suffer severe emotional distress. Plaintiffs were present at the time this outrageous conduct occurred and Defendants knew that Plaintiffs or others similarly situated would be present," concludes the lawsuit.

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