The nonprofit International Rights Advocates sued the tech companies Dec. 16 on behalf of families of children killed or injured while mining for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the supply is found.
Cobalt is a key ingredient for the rechargeable batteries that power smartphones and electric cars. The companies are accused of “aiding and abetting” dangerous mining conditions with their growing cobalt demand, according to the federal class action complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The companies have known for a long time that DRC’s cobalt mining sector is dependent on children, the complaint says.
The lawsuit follows a similar suit over child labor in the cocoa industry and reflects heightened pressure on supply chain ethics. Some companies have been stepping up their sourcing oversight of cobalt and other commodities.
“This new form of legal challenge is an important development,” said Nicholas Garrett, CEO of international supply chain audit and advisory firm RCS Global. Garrett said in an email that the lawsuit, “irrespective of its chance of success,” shines a light on labor abuses that can occur in the so-called artisanal mining sector.
Dell spokeswoman Lauren Lee said the company “is committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals, which includes upholding the human rights of workers at any tier of our supply chain and treating them with dignity and respect.”
Dell has “never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor,” she said.
Apple said, in response to a request for comment: “Apple is deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials that go into our products. We’ve led the industry by establishing the strictest standards for our suppliers and are constantly working to raise the bar for ourselves, and the industry. In 2014, we were the first to start mapping our cobalt supply chain to the mine level and since 2016, we have published a full list of our identified cobalt refiners every year, 100% of which are participating in independent third party audits. If a refiner is unable or unwilling to meet our standards, they will be removed from our supply chain. We’ve removed 6 cobalt refiners in 2019.”
Alphabet, Microsoft, and Tesla didn’t return requests for comment.
Causes of Action: Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Relief: Money damages, injunctive relief, medical care and monitoring fund.
Potential Class Size: Tens of thousands of children working as miners.
Attorneys: International Rights Advocates filed the complaint.
The case is Doe v. Apple Inc., D.D.C., No. 19-3737, filed 12/16/19.
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