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Apple, Google, Tesla, sued for allegedly benefitting from DRC child labour

By Romain Gras
Posted on Wednesday, 18 December 2019 06:53

Near a mine in Rubaya in eastern DRC, a sign denounces child labour. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet are facing legal action in a U.S. Federal Court after a coalition of researchers and lawyers filed a complaint on Monday, 16 December 2019. They’re accusing the firms of "aiding and abetting child labour" in Congolese cobalt mines.

The International Rights Advocates (IRAdvocates) –  a group specialising in the prosecution of multinational firms – has compiled a 79-page civil lawsuit on behalf of 14 plaintiffs.

They’re accusing all five technology giants of knowingly profiting from child labour in DRC’s cobalt mines. 

The lawyers also claim to have proof that the companies helped and encouraged the owners of the mines.

40,000 children in the mines of Katanga

Congo produces 60% of the world’s cobalt. The metal is a key component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are mainly used in electric cars, and mobile phones.

In 2014, the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF estimated that 40,000 children were working in Katangan mines in the DRC. 

  • “Very often, it is children who work on the sites of mining companies in an ‘artisanal’ way. The companies that manage official mines let it happen, even if they regularly denounce ‘theft’, claiming that these artisanal miners act without their knowledge,” says Roger-Claude Liwanga, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Liwanga is a researcher at Harvard University and professor of law and international negotiations at Emory University. He’s also a specialist on child labour in Congolese mines.

  • “The reality is that the cobalt mining sector in the DRC depends on children, with men and women performing the work in primitive conditions. It is a fertile breeding ground for technology giants who seek cobalt at a lower cost and use it with knowledge,” adds Liwanga.

“Substantial support”

The lawsuit does not accuse U.S. multinationals of hiring child workers. The plaintiffs are accusing them of “knowingly benefiting from and providing substantial support to this ‘artisanal’ mining system in the DRC.”

Over several months, IRAdvocates traced the cobalt supply chain and found two key suppliers: China’s Huayou Cobalt and the Swiss mining giant Glencore. They allegedly benefit from child labour in cobalt mines through several companies, which own and operate mining sites in Lualaba and Haut-Katanga.

According to the court papers, Huayou Cobalt supplies cobalt to Apple. The Chinese firm also owns Congo Dongfang Mining (CDM) and Compagnie Miniere de Musonoie (COMUS), which operate in Lualaba.

The lawsuit claims that several workers have been injured at CDM.

The Belgium company, Umicore is also one of Apple’s suppliers. Umicore processes cobalt for the Swiss group, Glencore, before selling the metal to other companies. Glencore and Umicore formalised their partnership in May 2018.

Glencore owns three companies in the DRC – Kamoto Copper Company, Katanga Mining, and Mutanda Mining (MUMI) – where several workers have allegedly been injured.

Many intermediaries

IRAdvocates says technology companies cannot ignore the working conditions faced by miners who extract cobalt for them.

In 2016, Amnesty International named CDM and Huayou Cobalt in its report, entitled “That’s why people die, human rights abuses in the DRC fuel the global cobalt trade”. The human rights group also questioned Apple about the working conditions at the mines where it sources the metal.

According to IRAdvocates, companies are aware of the risks posed to workers. In February 2019, Apple published a “Statement on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings and Slavery in Its Activities and Supply Chain”, saying it supports several initiatives to expose potential abuses among its suppliers.

  • “Everything is done to confuse the supply chain. Companies are trying to hide behind the many intermediaries involved in it,” says Liwanga.

IRAdvocates believes that it now has enough evidence, including personal testimonies, photos, and videos to ask for reparations. The complaint “is a first step” towards justice.

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