A lawsuit filed in Washington DC by the International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 Congolese families has named tech giants such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and Dell as defendants in a case regarding child labour in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The central African nation is the world's largest producer of cobalt, a mineral used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. Accounts of child miners as young as seven, working in most deplorable conditions, have surfaced in the past.
The lawsuit alleges that the tech companies had "specific knowledge" that the cobalt sourced for their products could be linked to child labour. It accuses the companies of having failed to regulate their supply chains and instead profited from the exploitation of children who were made to work in dangerous conditions that often led to deaths and injuries, the Guardian reported.
Apart from the tech companies, mining companies named as defendants are China's Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt and the British-Swiss' Glencore. The lawsuit alleges that the tech giants aided and abetted these mining companies.
The court papers have given several examples of exploitation of child miners who were paid as little as $2/day and were forced to work in dark, underground tunnels, with primitive tools. The families have claimed that many child labourers were buried alive due to tunnel collapses or were paralyzed or suffered serious injuries from such accidents.
The 14 Congolese families have sought monetary compensation for forced labour, emotional distress and negligent supervision. This is reported to be the first instance where tech giants are facing such a legal challenge.
Microsoft said in a statement, "Microsoft is committed to responsible and ethical sourcing. We take this responsibility very seriously and take significant steps to enforce our policies and code of conduct in support of human rights, labor, health and safety, environmental protection, and business ethics through our supply chain."
"If there is questionable behaviour or possible violation by one of our suppliers, we investigate and take action. We recognize that global raw material supply chains are vast and complex systems involving millions of entities that we cannot impact alone. It's why we continue to work with suppliers, NGOs and the larger industry to improve things on the ground and address these important issues."
A Glencore spokesperson said, "Glencore notes the allegations contained in a US lawsuit filed on 15th December 2019. The company supports and respects human rights in a manner consistent with the universal declaration of human rights. Glencore's production of cobalt in the DRC is a by-product of our industrial copper production. Its operations in the DRC do not purchase or process any artisanally mined ore. Glencore does not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labor."
Other companies have not yet responded to the allegations.
DRC's exploitation over its mineral wealth
The DRC is the world's leading producer of cobalt with a global production share of about 60%. The mineral is used in the production of lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars, smartphones, laptops etc.
Poverty has forced scores of children from the resource-rich DRC to work as cobalt miners. Research by UNICEF estimated 40,000 Congolese children to be working in cobalt mines. Out of the total cobalt mined in the DRC, more than 20% are reportedly dug with hands.