As It Happens

Tech giants sued over 'appalling' deaths of children who mine their cobalt

A new lawsuit alleges that some of the world's largest tech companies — including Apple and Microsoft — are knowingly benefiting the use of deadly child labour at cobalt mines in Congo.

Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla and Google's parent company, Alphabet are named in the lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit accuses tech giants of using exploitative child labour in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)
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Transcript

An international advocacy group has launched a lawsuit against some of the world's largest tech companies for the deaths and injuries of child miners in Congolese cobalt mines. 

International Rights Advocates brought the case on behalf of 14 Congolese families whose children were killed or injured while mining for cobalt. The metal is key ingredient in the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power most electronic devices. 

The defendants named in the suit include Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla and Google's parent company, Alphabet.

The lawsuit accuses those companies of "knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children." It has not been tested in court.  ​​

Siddharth Kara, a public policy lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, has been looking into the conditions at Congolese cobalt mines for years. His research is the foundation of the lawsuit.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what he witnessed during his research. Here is part of their conversation.

Has anyone ever tried this before — suing a tech giant on behalf of children working in mines?

This is a landmark case. No one has ever, at least prior to Dec. 16, 2019, tried to sue the largest tech companies in the world on behalf of the children in the Congo who mine their cobalt.

A child and a woman break rocks extracted from a cobalt mine at a copper quarry and cobalt pit in Lubumbashi, Congo. (Junior Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

Can you tell us some of the stories you have heard, some of the things that you have found out about these children who are mining cobalt?

The research I've done ... has yielded some of the most heartbreaking, appalling and utterly unimaginable levels of exploitation and suffering of any sector that I've researched in almost two decades of research into slavery and child labour.

The peasant population, and the children in particular, are eking out a sub-human existence, caked in toxic filth and grime as they mine for the cobalt that is used in every lithium-ion rechargeable battery on the planet.

And I think the worst stories I heard — and I heard far too many of these — involved young children and young men who would dig tunnels to find the larger cobalt deposits, some of these up to 100 feet deep, and then these tunnels just would collapse and bury alive everyone inside.

And you were actually there doing your research at a time when one of these tunnels collapsed on a bunch of people, including children. Is that right?

It's probably one of the most haunting and painful days of all my research.

I was doing research near Lake Malo, which is not too far outside of the city of Kolwezi, and documenting some children when we received word that a tunnel had collapsed barely 100 metres from where I was standing.

We rushed to the site. It had already been blocked off by Congolese military. Family members were swarming in, swooning and howling with with terror for any word of survivors.

It didn't take long before we received word that there were 63 people in that tunnel, and 63 people buried alive that day.

Kara says during his research a tunnel at one cobalt mine collapsed and killed 63 people. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

The children who are working, how much money do they actually make from working in these cobalt mines?

The children, even the adults, barely eke out somewhere between 80 cents and maybe $2 a day, depending on the kind of work that they're doing.

When you add to that the context that they're producing this cobalt that's used in the gadgets sold by companies that are worth hundreds of billions of dollars, if not more than a trillion dollars, run by executives or billionaires — that complete degrading and debasing amount of wealth and income that is shared at the bottom of the chain by the top is unconscionable.

It's unacceptable. It's completely indecent. And that's the remedy, above all, that I'm after with my research and this lawsuit in particular — fix the conditions on the ground and pay these people decently.

The hardest thing to do with a kind of suit like this is ... actually prove that the cobalt that is mined by the children that you're talking about is actually ending up in the supply chain of products made by Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla. Is there evidence that that exact cobalt is ending up in their supply chain?

We would not have filed the lawsuit unless we did not have definitive evidence that these children are plaintiffs and thousands of other children and poor people in the Congo were mining and suffering cobalt at mining areas linked directly to the supply chains of the largest tech and automakers in the world.

You see, two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt comes from the Congo. So already, right there, you cannot avoid Congolese cobalt.

People fetch water outside a copper and cobalt mine. (Aaron Ross/Reuters)

But I'm asking you, is it possible that these companies can claim that you can't prove that they're actually linked to the cobalt? 

Certainly the supply chain is opaque. It is complex. But the plaintiffs all were injured and killed at mines owned by companies that have been publicly disclosed as sellers of cobalt to our defendants.

One of those companies is a mining company called Glencore. Glencore has put out a statement to say that it "does not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labour." What do you say to them?

I say words are all fine and good. But what you say you tolerate and what's actually happening on the ground are two different things.

And I would encourage the people at Glencore to take this seriously, to work constructively on solving this problem. It's been all too easy for these companies to proclaim their zero tolerance policies and then continue business as usual.

There are children, there are peasants, being injured and being killed on sites they own every day. That is a fact. And that is a fact they need to come to terms with and to address in an honest and constructive fashion.

In almost two decades of research into child labour, Kara says the conditions he witnessed at the mines had 'the most heartbreaking, appalling and utterly unimaginable levels of exploitation.' (Junior Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

How much more would it cost them to actually be paying these labourers the wages, living wages, or putting in safe labour practices for the children and the workers in these mines? 

Perhaps the only tragedy greater than the criminal destruction of the environment and the lives of the people of the Congo by these companies is the fact that it would be a rounding error on their income statements to fix the problem.

It would not take much at all by way of resources or attention to sit down and genuinely and constructively and permanently bring decency, dignity, safety and security to the people and the communities in the Congo where their cobalt is mined.


Written John McGill. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story misquoted Siddharth Kara as saying the lawsuit was launched on Dec. 6. In fact, it was filed on Dec. 16.
    Dec 18, 2019 2:19 PM ET

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