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Are children ‘dying like dogs’ in effort to build better batteries?

Slave labor, the Congo and big tech’s quest for cobalt

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A young man carries wet cobalt on his back at the Shinkolobwe Cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004. A lawsuit says tech firms such as Apple and Tesla are profiting from child labor.

A young man carries wet cobalt on his back at the Shinkolobwe Cobalt mine, near Likasi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004. A class action lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C., in 2019 is seeking to hold Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Dell Technologies, Microsoft and Tesla accountable for profiting off the misery of child labor in their quest for cobalt.

Schalk van Zuydam, Associated Press

“Our children are dying like dogs.”

That is the sorrowful statement of one Congolese mother whose son and cousin died while working the cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

She and other parents like her are part of a class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C., in 2019 seeking to hold Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Dell Technologies, Microsoft and Tesla accountable for what they allege is profiting off the misery of child labor in their quest for cobalt.

“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 that has brought on the latest wave of cruel exploitation fueled by greed, corruption and indifference to a population of powerless, starving Congolese people,” the suit reads.

The companies have argued the case should be dismissed, asserting they have no control over the mining practices in a foreign country and that the families lack standing to bring the suit on U.S. soil. Furthermore, they stressed they have no direct connection to mining on foreign soil.

Apple over the years has cracked down on its global supply chain of cobalt and at one point said it would stop buying cobalt mined by hand in the Congo.

The company released a statement in 2019.

“Apple is committed to treating everyone in our business and supply chain with dignity and respect, to upholding human rights across our global network of suppliers, and to protecting the planet we all share. We set high standards to respect and empower those who build our products, while conserving the planet’s resources,” it said, adding, “We are dedicated to protecting children wherever our products are made or used.

But the lawsuit insists companies are simply turning a blind eye to the egregious abuses that include children killed in tunnel collapses or losing limbs or suffering from other horrific injuries caused by mining accidents.

“There is no question that defendants have specific knowledge that the cobalt mined in DRC they use in their various products includes cobalt that was produced by children working under extremely hazardous conditions, that serious mining accidents are common due to the primitive conditions and complete lack of safety precautions in the mines, and that hundreds, if not thousands, of children have been maimed or killed to produce the cobalt needed for the world’s modern tech gadgets produced by defendants and other companies,” the lawsuit says.

It goes on to emphasize that every smartphone, tablet, laptop, electric vehicle or other device containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery requires cobalt in order to recharge.

“Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the defendants each year would not be possible without cobalt mined in the DRC. “

Child labor practices in the Congohave been widely reported in media outlets throughout the world and documented by human rights experts.

In 2016, Amnesty International published a major report on the conditions for child laborers mining cobalt in the DRC.

The report, called “This Is What We Die For — Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt,” said it is widely recognized on an international scale that the involvement of children in mining constitutes one of the worst forms of child labor, which governments are required to prohibit and eliminate.

Although companies like Apple have promoted voluntary programs in which human rights abuses in the supply chain for cobalt can be reported, the lawsuit contends these programs are mere lip service.

“The DRC is one of the most repressive countries in the world, but, until they are forced to do better, Apple and the other companies are relying on largely illiterate, desperately poor, and exceedingly vulnerable people to figure out Apple’s complaint mechanism and report supply chain violations,” the lawsuit said, emphasizing the Congolese people “certainly cannot afford personal computers or iPhones and they do not have internet or cellphone access to connect to the outside world within the context of a violent regime that does not tolerate dissent and an unregulated industry that could retaliate with impunity against any whistleblowers.”