Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, have been accused by an international advocacy group of “knowingly benefiting from” the use of young children to mine cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
International Rights Advocates have in Washington D.C. filed a federal class action against the five businesses. The lawsuit alleges that under extremely dangerous conditions the companies “knowingly profit from and promote the cruel and brutal use of young children” to mine cobalt.
For a “significant period of time” the defendants knew that the mining sector in Congo “is dependent on children,” the complaint says, adding that the US Department of Labor has enlisted cobalt mined in the area among goods produced by child labor.
The complaint also states “Further, the horrors of the plight of these children has been widely reported in the media,” with reference to previous reports that had been published by the Washington Post, the Guardian and others.
Cobalt, which is an important component in the making of lithium-ion battery is found in essentially every electronic rechargeable device. Congo is a major player in the world’s cobalt market with Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, sourced from there.
A CNN investigation found that there was prevalent child labor and abuse in Congo as of 2018. Several businesses, Tesla inclusive, told CNN at the time that because of what they described as the complex nature of sourcing the product, they were unable to completely track their supply chains.
Tesla, however, said it was importing most of its cobalt from suppliers outside of Congo and was “committed to only sourcing responsibly-produced materials.” Apple was one of a few companies to disclose their sources to CNN.
The current lawsuit was filed on account of more than a dozen undisclosed plaintiffs who are identified as “guardians of children killed in tunnels or walls collapsed” while mining, or “children who were mutilated in such incidents.” The complaint describes many cases involving children who are alleged to have been injured. There is a case of a boy who slipped and fell while working in a mine and is “now completely paralyzed from his chest down.” Apple refused to comment on these particular allegations.
However, the company said in a statement to CNN Business that it is “deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials that go into our products.”
“Since 2016, we have published a full list of our identified cobalt refiners every year, 100% of which are participating in independent third-party audits,” a spokesperson said. “If a refiner is unable or unwilling to meet our standards, they will be removed from our supply chain. We’ve removed six cobalt refiners in 2019.”
In 2017, Apple declared that it would avoid the supply of cobalt from artisanal miners, this refers to people who do not possess professional equipment. The company refused to comment on claims that it was having discussions to purchase cobalt directly from regulated mines in Congo in May 2018. Google said it is working with suppliers and industry groups to address the issue both within and outside the country. The requests for comments were not met by Microsoft (MSFT) and Tesla (TSLA).
Dell stated that it is “committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals” and “upholding the human rights of workers at any tier of our supply chain and treating them with dignity and respect.”
“We have never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor. We work with suppliers to manage their sourcing programs responsibly. Any supplier with reports of misconduct is investigated and, if misconduct is found, removed from our supply chain,” the company added.
All these businesses have codes of conduct that forbid their suppliers from the use of child labor.
The International Rights Advocates alleges that the children were abused and injured in mining operations linked to the mining companies Glencore (GLCNF), Umicore and Huayou Cobalt, which the organization said supplies to either some or all of the defendants. None of these companies have been identified as defendants.
Glencore told CNN Business that it was aware of the allegations in the lawsuit and that the company “does not accept any form of child labor, forced labor or compulsory labor.” Umicore denied the allegations on Tuesday, adding that its internal guidelines allow cobalt suppliers to screen and check for “red flags.”
“Glencore’s production of cobalt in [Congo] is a by-product of our industrial copper production,” the company said. “Glencore does not purchase, process or trade any artisanally mined ore.” The Swiss firm added in another statement Tuesday that it works with organizations on the ground to “help children stay out of artisanal mining.”
A request for comment was not replied by Huayou Cobalt.
International Rights Advocates are seeking compensation for the alleged victims in its lawsuit, the advocates said it is asking the court to order Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla to begin a fund to help the victims receive medical attention.