US Tech Giants Accused of Using Child Labor in Cobalt Mining
Sat, April 17, 2021

US Tech Giants Accused of Using Child Labor in Cobalt Mining

A lawsuit was recently filed in Washington, D.C., alleging six US tech firms to have endangered the lives of child laborers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the mining of cobalt to be used in their products / Photo by: Julien Harneis via Wikimedia Commons

 

A lawsuit was recently filed in Washington, D.C., alleging six US tech firms to have endangered the lives of child laborers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the mining of cobalt to be used in their products.

Child Labor in the DRC

Dell, Tesla, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Alphabet were all included in the lawsuit filed by the International Rights Advocates, an organization that promotes human rights and corporate accountability. It accused the tech giants of aiding and abetting in the use of young children in DRC to mine cobalt, which is an important component in every lithium-ion battery that is used in the electronic devices. DRC supplies about 60% of the world’s supply of cobalt.

The lawsuit also alleged that the young children are not only forced to work full time but are also exposed to “extremely dangerous” jobs that may endanger their future and education. It likewise included a photo of one child laborer, whose legs were crushed when he was mining for cobalt in a tunnel with no support. The child allegedly “soared under extremely primitive conditions” to help meet the demand required by the tech giants and that the companies are responsible for the damages since they had the authority to regulate, control, prohibit, and supervise their respective cobalt supply chain.

Dell, Tesla, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Alphabet were all included in the lawsuit filed by the International Rights Advocates, an organization that promotes human rights and corporate accountability / Photo by: Tim Patterson via Wikimedia Commons

 

Two Mining Companies That Supply Cobalt to the US Tech Firms

Although the tech giants did not directly order from the DRC laborers, two mining companies supply cobalt to all of them. These mining companies are Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt in China and Glencore in Britain.

The International Rights Advocates said that Glencore is recognized in the environmental and human rights circle to be a “scorched” earth mining firm that is operating outside the international environment and human rights standards. It also alleged that Glencore bribes some DRC officials so they can acquire companies that the government had

Dell shared with American newspaper The Hill that it “never knowingly sourced operations” using child labor, fraudulent recruitment practices, or involuntary labor. In a statement, Apple also said that it has remained “deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials" they use in their products. In 2019, they removed six cobalt refiners from their supply chain because they did not meet their required safety standards. 

For their part, Google said that endangerment and child labor are both unacceptable to them and their Supply Code of Conduct “strictly prohibits” such kind of activity. Some companies have yet to issue their statements about the allegations.

In January 2016, Apple was accused of buying lithium-ion batteries from suppliers that use child labor in mining the cobalt. At that time, Apple said that its company “never” tolerates underage labor in its supply chain and even prides itself on the pioneering of safety standards in the industry. Because of the 2016 allegations, Apple evaluated the different materials they use to determine environmental and labor risks and opportunities. If they find that their supplier violates child labor laws, they would be forced to fund the safe return of these workers to their home, finance the worker’s education at the school chosen by the child worker or his or her family, continue to pay their wages, and offer him or her a job when he or she reaches legal age of employment. Apple went on to emphasize that they are releasing a Supplier Responsibility Progress Report every year to disclose the information they discovered in their audits.

Although the tech giants did not directly order from the DRC laborers, two mining companies supply cobalt to all of them. These mining companies are Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt in China and Glencore in Britain / Photo by: James St. John via Wikimedia Commons

 

Share of Children in Employment, Boys vs. Girls

Meanwhile, scientific online publication Our World in Data published data that shows that 43.61% of female children and 39.16% of male children (ages 7-14) were in employment in the DRC as of 2016.  The share of children in employment in other African countries in the same year are as follows: Chad (55.09% female, 56.71% male), Nigeria (36.04% female, 34.07% male), Ethiopia (19.5% female, 32.5% male), Tunisia (2.7% female, 3.9% male), and Guinea (35.9% female, 40.3% male).

The International Labour Organization estimates that there are around 265 million children in the world who are in the labor force.

A Lawsuit That Raises Awareness

Technology news provider CNET’s executive editor Roger Cheng, who is one of the people who first reported about the lawsuit, said that the action filed by the International Rights Advocates raises people’s awareness on the matter. He has mentioned how big an issue it is, particularly for companies like Tesla because they invest a lot to use the big batteries for their cars. On the other hand, there are companies, like Panasonic, that invest in research that could reduce the use of cobalt batteries.

Child labor is a serious violation of children’s rights. In turn, it undermines economies. Whether or not the allegations against the tech companies are true, children should be protected from exploitation and abuse. The world’s top companies should do their part to ensure that happens.