A new lawsuit accuses several of the world’s largest technology companies of knowingly profiting from children laboring under brutal conditions in African cobalt mines.
The suit, filed this week in Washington by the nongovernmental organization International Rights Advocates, seeks damages from Apple Inc., Dell Technologies Inc., Microsoft Corp., Tesla Inc. and Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google.
Cobalt is an essential element in the rechargeable lithium batteries that fuel many electronic devices. The rise of smartphones in the last 12 years has created a large demand for the metal, and the growing popularity of electric cars is expected to further increase demand.
The lawsuit alleges the companies are “aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children” in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The lawsuit targets two mining companies, Glencore in Britain and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt in China, which it says supply cobalt to all the defendants.
The suit is filed on behalf of 13 anonymous plaintiffs, all families with children who died or suffered serious injury while mining cobalt.
The suit says that the cobalt boom “brought on a new wave of brutal exploitation” for the DRC, which has a bloody colonial history and was once considered the personal property of Belgium’s King Leopold II. It says hundreds of Congolese children have been forced by extreme poverty to work in the cobalt mines, digging in underground tunnels with primitive equipment for as little as $2 a day.
Apple said it is “deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials that go into our products.” The company said it “removed” six cobalt refiners from its supply chain in 2019 for being unable to meet Apple’s safety standards.
Dell said the allegations in the lawsuit are being investigated and that the company has “never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor.”
Google said, “Child labor and endangerment is unacceptable and our Supplier Code of Conduct strictly prohibits this activity.”
The other companies named in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to a request for comment.