Tech Giants Face DRC Forced Labor Lawsuit

On December 15, a class action complaint was filed against a whos-who of prominent tech companies – Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla – (Doe 1 et al v. Apple Inc. et al 1:19-cv-03737) regarding their profiting from forced child labor and resulting death or injury. The suit was filed in the District of Columbia District Court. Plaintiffs are represented by International Rights Advocates, a U.S.-based human rights non-profit organization.

These five tech companies have been sued for their involvement in the death and serious injury of forced child laborers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). These children, the complaint alleges, were forced to mine cobalt, which is used to make rechargeable lithium batteries. The families alleged that these companies perpetuated forced labor, which led to the serious injury and death of their children. This is the first time the tech industry has faced a suit jointly about where its cobalt comes from. The complaint stated that six of the 14 children were killed in tunnel or wall collapses, and the others had life-altering injuries, including paralysis from those accidents.

“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,” Terrence Collingsworth, an attorney representing the families, said.

The lawsuit alleged that the children were forced to work because of their families’ severe poverty. They worked for Glencore, a British mining company. Some of the children were as young as six years old and were paid as little as $1.50 per day and worked six days a week. Glencore has previously been accused of taking advantage of child labor. These children have left behind their education as a result of their poverty, but their health and safety are also being compromised.

“Glencore does not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labor” a spokesperson for Glencore stated.

Reuters reported, “[i]n response to a request for comment, Dell said in an email that it has ‘never knowingly sourced operations’ using child labor and has launched an investigation into the allegations.”

The DRC contains the world’s largest cobalt deposits and the complaint recounts the history of the colonial exploitation of that resource-rich country. Demand for cobalt has dramatically increased in recent years, in part because popular devices use lithium batteries. In a press release, the IRA stated, “[t]he 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.” 

More tech companies are expected to be added to the lawsuit as the investigation continues.

Plaintiffs “assert claims for forced child labor in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act…Plaintiffs also seek relief based on common law claims of unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”