Some of the biggest names in consumer technology have been accused of being complicit in the deaths of children from the Democratic Republic of Congo who were mining a metal integral to their devices.
Tesla, Apple, Microsoft, Dell and Google‘s parent company Alphabet have been identified in a lawsuit as part of a system of forced labour that 14 families claim led to the death or serious injury of their children.
The children cited in the landmark lawsuit had been put to work to mine cobalt – a metal vital to the production of technologies including smartphones and computers.
Filed on Sunday by International Rights Advocates, the case marked the first time the tech industry jointly has faced legal action over the source of its cobalt.
Images in the court documents, filed in US District Court in Washington DC, showed children with disfigured or missing limbs.
Six of the 14 children in the case were killed in tunnel collapses, and the others suffered life-altering injuries, including paralysis, it said.
“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,” said lawyer Terrence Collingsworth, who is representing the families.
Cobalt is essential in making rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products sold by the tech industry.
More than half of the world’s cobalt is produced in Congo.
Global demand for the metal is expected to increase at between 7 and 13 per cent annually over the next decade, according to a 2018 study by the European Commission.
In response to a request for comment, Dell said in an email that it has “never knowingly sourced operations” using child labour and has launched an investigation into the allegations.
Tesla, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Glencore did not immediately respond to questions from The Independent regarding the allegations.
The lawsuit said the children, some as young as six, were forced by their families’ extreme poverty to leave school and work in cobalt mines owned by the British mining company Glencore. Glencore has previously been accused of using child labour.
Some children were paid as little as $1.50 (£1.13) per day, working six days a week, it said.
“Starve or go risk your life to try to eat. Those are the choices for these people,” said Mr Collingsworth.
The legal complaint argued that the companies all have the ability to overhaul their cobalt supply chains to ensure safer conditions.
“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,” said Siddharth Kara, a researcher on modern slavery who is an expert witness in the case.
“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,” Mr Kara said.
More than 40 million people have been estimated to be captive in modern slavery, which includes forced labour and forced marriage, according to Walk Free and the International Labour Organisation.
Additional reporting by Thomson Reuters Foundation
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