Apple, Google, Tesla Among Companies Named In Lawsuit Over Congolese Child Cobalt Mining Deaths
“These companies – the richest companies in the world, these fancy gadget-making companies – have allowed children to be maimed and killed to get their cheap cobalt.”
Apple, Google, Microsoft, Tesla and Dell have been named in a landmark lawsuit by a human rights group representing Congolese families whose children were killed or injured while mining cobalt for their products. The class-action lawsuit accuses the tech giants of having “specific knowledge” that cobalt mining in their supply chains involved forcing impoverished children into extremely dangerous full-time labor.
“These companies – the richest companies in the world, these fancy gadget-making companies – have allowed children to be maimed and killed to get their cheap cobalt,” Terrence Collingsworth, a lawyer representing the families, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Democratic Republic of Congo produces about two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, a vital mineral in the production of rechargeable lithium batteries used in smartphones, laptops and electric cars. Demand for the metal has tripled in the past five years and is expected to double again by the end of 2020, fueling the wartorn country’s informal mining sector.
The lawsuit is the first to apply pressure to the world’s biggest tech companies to improve conditions on the ground and stop gaining financial advantage from the exploitation of brutal child labor. The families and injured children are pursuing damages for forced labor, unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
“Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the Defendants each year would not be
possible without cobalt mined in the DRC,” reads the lawsuit. The suit claims that children as young as six work in the mines, making as little as $1.50 per day for working six days a week.
International Rights Advocates, the human rights group representing the families, argues that the accused multinationals have ample resources to ensure humane conditions in their supply chains.
“I’ve never encountered or documented a more severe asymmetry in the allocation of income between the top of the supply chain and the bottom,” Siddharth Kara, a researcher on modern slavery who is an expert witness in the case, told Al Jazeera. “It’s that disconnect that makes this perhaps the worst injustice of slavery and child exploitation that I’ve seen in my two decades research.”
The suit claims that children worked illegally at mines owned by UK-based commodity giant Glencore and Chinese cobalt firm Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt. These foreign-owned mines allegedly sell cobalt to Belgian-based commodity trader Umiciore, which then sells high-grade cobalt to Apple, Google, Tesla, Dell and Microsoft.
As one of the largest commodity traders and mining companies in the world, Glencore has been described as “the biggest company you’ve never heard of.” Glencore is the world’s top provider of cobalt and zinc with operations in over 150 countries. In an example of the company’s outsized influence, Glencore owned 98% of Chad’s commercial debt in 2016, forcing the country to devote 85% of its oil revenue (its primary export) to repayment until a debt restructuring plan was negotiated last year.
Glencore’s long list of controversies includes previous accusations of child labor in its African mines, severe environmental pollution, and sanctions-busting in apartheid South Africa, Iran, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where it was accused by the CIA of paying $3.2 million in illegal kickbacks.
The company’s former CEO Marc Rich was on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list for years before being pardoned by Bill Clinton in the final hours of his presidency. Rich’s family had been a prominent donor to the Clintons.
Renewable Energy Abuses
As Citizen Truth previously reported, a corporate watchdog in September found that most of the top global companies extracting minerals for renewable energy infrastructure have been accused of human rights abuses in their mines. As the Guardian’s Kate Hodal reported:
“Analysis published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), an international corporate watchdog, revealed that 87% of the 23 largest companies mining cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc – the six minerals essential to the renewable energy industry – have faced allegations of abuse including land rights infringements, corruption, violence or death over the past 10 years.”
Expert witness Siddhartha Khan hopes the new lawsuit brings international attention to these inhumane conditions as rare mineral mining surges amid demand for a global transition to renewable energy.
“This lawsuit is intended to compel the defendants to remedy the horrific conditions at the bottom of cobalt supply chains,” wrote Khan. “Whether our legal system agrees that they should be held to account for the death and injury of these children remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, it will be the first time that the voices of the children suffering in the dark underbelly of one of the richest supply chains in the world will be heard in a court of law.”
Congo’s Long History Of Exploitation
The DRC has endured centuries of Western exploitation, from 16th-century slave trading to the horrors enacted by the Belgians under King Leopold in the 19th century to the CIA-backed murder of the country’s first democratically-elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961.
Lumumba’s execution was also tied to conflict minerals, as the United States used uranium from Congolese mines to develop the first atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagosaki and feared Lumumba’s “determination to achieve genuine independence and to have full control over Congo’s resources,” as explained by African history expert Dr. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja.
The DRC remains one of the world’s most unstable and impoverished nations despite its wealth of valuable resources. The country’s infant mortality rate is among the world’s worst and nearly half of all Congolese children suffer chronic malnourishment.
A major reason for the nation’s failure to develop is corruption, exemplified by Israeli billionaire Dan Gerlter, whose shady deals with Glencore and former Congolese president Joseph Kabila have cost the country more than $1.3 billion, almost twice the nation’s combined health and education budgets, in one three-year period alone, according to the Guardian. Gertler was placed under U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration for his corrupt dealings in the DRC last year.
Notably, celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former FBI director Louis Freeh began lobbying the US government to end sanctions against Gertler last month. Dershowitz hired Freeh in 2016 to independently investigate allegations that the lawyer raped Virginia Giuffre, one of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s accusers. Freeh, Dershowitz’ friend for years, said he found no evidence of the crime.
Three Epstein accusers – Sarah Ransome, Maria Farmer and Virginia Giuffre – have brought allegations against Dershowitz in court filings and defamation lawsuits. The lawyer helped negotiate Epstein’s secret plea deal in 2008 without the knowledge of his at least 40 teenaged accusers. The plea deal also immunized Epstein’s potential accomplices from prosecution. Dershowitz, who in late 2018 said he was still advising Epstein, has also sought to block the press from access to criminal proceedings.