The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a large and populous Central African Country endowed with a wealth of scarce and valuable natural resources. Tragically, for generations the country has been exploited for these natural riches to the detriment of its people. This exploitation occurred for decades at the hands of the Belgians whose monarch, King Leopold II, held the country as his personal estate and instituted a forced labor and quota system which brutalized the population. Now according to a new lawsuit filed in November of 2019, big American tech companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla are reaping the benefits of a similarly exploitative system.
The DRC is the primary global source of cobalt, an element used in the production of rechargeable lithium-ion battery products. Workers in Congolese cobalt mines use hand tools in unsupported mine shafts to excavate cobalt ore and are regularly killed or maimed in tunnel collapses. Children work under these perilous conditions for long hours and for as little eighty-one cents per day.
In a class action suit filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, plaintiffs accuse the titans of silicon-valley of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children” in cobalt mining.
In a class action suit filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, plaintiffs accuse the titans of silicon-valley of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children” in cobalt mining. The complaint alleges that big-tech are the “latest to join the list of rapacious exploiters that have given the DRC a particularly horrific history of being pillaged and plundered.” All the plaintiffs in the case are either maimed laborers or relatives of laborers killed in the Congolese cobalt mines. They seek monetary damages as well as injunctive relief.
The lawsuit follows a 2016 report filed by Amnesty International, which accused many of these same companies of benefiting directly from child labor in the Congo. The report included ninety interviews with Congolese cobalt miners and documented the deaths of eighty miners underground between September 2014 and December 2015.
In response to the present lawsuit, in Fall 2019 multiple defendants reasserted their support for responsible mining. Google said in a statement that “Child labor and endangerment is unacceptable, and our Supplier Code of Conduct strictly prohibits this activity.” Additionally, “[Google] [is] committed to sourcing all materials ethically and eliminating child mining in global supply chains.” Dell responded by saying that they are “committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals, which includes upholding the human rights of workers at any tier of [their] supply chain and treating them with dignity and respect.” Further, “[Dell] [has] never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor.”
However, International Rights Advocates, which is representing the plaintiffs, argues that the defendants are fully aware of the situation in the DRC. If they were not aware, then it would be due to “an extreme form of willful ignorance [for] they certainly ‘should have known’ that their supply chain ventures are dependent upon the cheap labor of forced child labor.”
In August of this year, the defendants asked a federal judge to dismiss the case. After condemning strongly the conditions faced by the plaintiffs, the defendants argued that due to the nature of the multi-level global supply chain for cobalt, it is impossible to prove the cobalt in their products came from any specific mine. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, also contended that they should not be forced to participate in the suit due to their “corporate structure,” which includes Google. Additionally, Dell sought dismissal from the case due to a lack of personal jurisdiction.
Regardless of the result of the Judge’s decision, this lawsuit should raise awareness among the general public of the plight of child workers in the Congo. It is also possible that this lawsuit will wake-up these large technology suppliers to the possibility that products of child labor are entering their supply chain. In their 2016 report, Amnesty International called on the world’s largest technology companies to “to conduct human rights due diligence, [and] investigate whether the cobalt is extracted under hazardous conditions or with child labour, and be more transparent about their suppliers.” Maybe now big tech will listen to this plea.