Tech giants sued over child cobalt mining deaths

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LONDON — Five of the world’s largest tech companies are being sued over the deaths and injuries of Congolese children mining for cobalt, a key component of the batteries used in smartphones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Tesla were all named in the federal class-action lawsuit filed on Sunday in Washington, D.C. The landmark case was brought forward by human rights lawyers at the Washington-based group International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 anonymous plaintiffs, who are described as either guardians of children killed in tunnel or wall collapses while mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or children who survived such accidents and were injured.

“We will do everything possible to get justice quickly for the children we represent,” the plaintiff’s lead counsel Terry Collingsworth, who is also executive director of International Rights Advocates, said in a statement. “In my 35 years as a human rights lawyer, I’ve never seen such extreme abuse of innocent children on a large scale. This astounding cruelty and greed needs to stop.”

The lawsuit accuses Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Tesla of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to mine cobalt,” which is found in every lithium-ion battery used to recharge the electronic devices that these five American companies manufacture. About two-thirds of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined from the mineral-rich Congolese provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba.

The complaint states that the children, some as young as 6, “are not merely being forced to work full-time, extremely dangerous mining jobs at the expense of their educations and futures; they are being regularly maimed and killed by tunnel collapses and other known hazards common to cobalt mining.”

In addition to the emotional distress, these deaths and injuries “place immense pressure on families requiring additional children to work in cobalt mining to replace the lost earnings,” according to the lawsuit.

The court document details a number of alleged instances where children were severely injured or died from working in cobalt mines alleged to be part of the defendants’ supply chains. One of the plaintiffs was 15 when he fell down a 20-foot shaft. The teen “is now completely paralyzed from his chest down and he can barely use his arms,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims that Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Tesla all have “specific knowledge from public reports” that the cobalt they sourced from the African nation “was mined in significant part by young children performing hazardous work” for roughly $2-$3 per day and, in many cases, even less than that. The complaint also alleges that the tech firms failed to perform the required due diligence to regulate their supply chains.

Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Tesla each have certain policies claiming to prohibit child labor in their supply chains, and the lawsuit alleges that “their failure to actually implement these policies to stop forced child labor in cobalt mining is an intentional act to avoid ending their windfall of getting cheap cobalt mined by forced child labor that they are acutely aware of.”

The families are seeking compensation for the alleged forced labor, unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A research team is continuing to investigate other tech and car companies and expects to add additional firms to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff’s research team includes Dr. Roger-Claude Liwanga, a Congolese national who is a professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia.

“This is the beginning of the end of impunity for those who have been economically benefiting from child labor in the DRC’s mining industry,” Liwanga said in a statement. “DRC children also have an inherent and inalienable right to be protected from economic exploitation.”

When asked for comment Wednesday, a Google spokesperson told ABC News in a statement that “child labor 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,” the spokesperson added. “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.”

The Responsible Minerals Initiative is comprised of over 380 companies with the goal of supporting “responsible sourcing of minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas,” according to its website. Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft and Tesla are all member companies.

A Dell spokesperson told ABC News that the company is “currently investigating these allegations, and have informed the Responsible Minerals Initiative.”

“Dell Technologies is committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals, which includes upholding the human rights of workers at any tier of our supply chain and treating them with dignity and respect,” the spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday. “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 spokesperson also noted: “Dell Technologies annually publishes a list of cobalt refiners identified in our supply chain via the Responsible Minerals Initiative’s Cobalt Reporting Template – last updated in July 2019. To learn more about our responsible sourcing work, view our Responsible Minerals Sourcing Report, FY19 Supply Chain Sustainability Progress Report, and our Responsible Sourcing Policy.”

When asked for comment Wednesday, Apple told ABC News in a statement that it “is deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials that go into our products.”

“We’ve led the industry by establishing the strictest standards for our suppliers and are constantly working to raise the bar for ourselves, and the industry,” the company continued. “In 2014, we were the first to start mapping our cobalt supply chain to the mine level and 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. If a refiner is unable or unwilling to meet our standards, they will be removed from our supply chain. We’ve removed 6 cobalt refiners in 2019.”

Microsoft and Tesla did not respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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