Feb 3, 2020
A U.S.-based human rights group filed a lawsuit against five of the world’s largest tech companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tesla, and Dell Technologies—for complicity in the forced labor, maiming and deaths of children working in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Cobalt is used to make the rechargeable lithium batteries contained in billions of phones and other hand-held products around the world. The demand for cobalt has tripled in the last five years, and is expected to double again by the end of this year. Greater than 60% of extracted cobalt originates in the DRC and 20% of that is mined by tiny hands.
Various companies are implicated in this exploitation. They include a Chinese company that owns cobalt mines and a British and Swiss mining company that “hires” (more like forced-labor) children from extremely impoverished families to work long hours in treacherous conditions to mine the cobalt. The cobalt is then sold to a Brussels-based metal trader, which delivers battery-grade cobalt to the huge tech companies.
Children, some as young as six years old, are paid as little as $1.50 a day, six days a week, for backbreaking and dangerous work digging for cobalt rocks. They labor under horrific conditions while crawling through tunnels or carrying heavy loads. These appalling conditions have resulted in children left with smashed limbs and broken spines, or killed outright in tunnel accidents. In response to the lawsuit, the various companies named and involved have maintained they do “not tolerate any form of child, forced or compulsory labor.”
But the complicity of Apple, Google, Dell, and Microsoft is obvious: companies that exploit child labor are integral to their supply chain. They have to have specific knowledge that cobalt used in their products is linked to child labor performed in hazardous conditions. It gives a new meaning to the expression, “turning a blind eye”!