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Explained: Why have Apple and Google been taken to court for cruelty to children in the Congo

The forced child labour case, filed in a court in Washington DC by International Rights Advocates, names Apple, Alphabet (Google's parent), Dell, Microsoft and Tesla as defendants.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 19, 2019 6:39:14 pm
Explained: Why have Apple and Google been taken to court for cruelty to children in the Congo? According to the European Commission (EC), more than half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, while China produces almost half of the world’s refined cobalt. (Representational Image)

A landmark lawsuit has been filed against major American technology companies by a human rights firm on behalf of 14 families of children who have been killed or injured while mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The forced child labour case, filed in a court in Washington DC by International Rights Advocates, names Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent), Dell, Microsoft and Tesla as defendants.

IRAdvocates, which is based in the United States, has been promoting human rights and corporate accountability through legal advocacy and capacity building for three decades now.

What are the tech firms accused of?

According to the IRA’s complaint, the defendants are benefiting from aiding and abetting “the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) to mine cobalt”.

This is the first time that the technology companies are being charged collectively over the sourcing of cobalt.

The IRA says the children are forced to work full-time in dangerous working conditions at the expense of their education and future, and are being “regularly maimed and killed by tunnel collapses and other hazards”.

Where is cobalt used?

Cobalt is an essential element in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are used in tech products and electric cars, and is, therefore, in high demand in the tech industry.

“The tech boom has caused an explosion in demand for cobalt, but in one of the most extreme contrasts imaginable, cobalt is mined in the DRC under extremely dangerous stone age conditions by children paid a dollar or two a day to supply cobalt for the expensive gadgets made by some of the richest companies in the world,” the IRA said in statement.

The complaint says that the tech firms have supported and enabled a system that relies on forced child labour “for higher profits”, and allows children to be maimed or be killed in cobalt mining accidents.

How is cobalt mined in the DRC?

The DRC has the world’s largest deposits of cobalt.

According to the European Commission (EC), more than half the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, while China produces almost half of the world’s refined cobalt.

An Amnesty International report noted there are two approaches to mining cobalt in DRC — industrial mining that is carried out by heavy equipment, and small-scale artisanal mining that is carried out with the help of basic tools.

According to a report in the Financial Times, while most of the DRC’s cobalt comes from mining sites where the rock is dug up by trucks, an estimated 150,000 “artisanal” or informal miners dig by hand in DRC’s Kolwezi.

Some 30 per cent of the cobalt mined in DRC in 2018 came from the artisanal miners, the FT report said.

Due to an anticipated boom in electric vehicles, it is expected that the demand for cobalt will increase globally.

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