In 1910, an estimated 2 million American children under the age of 15 were working in factories and mines for low wages and long shifts. Photographs by Lewis Hine of New York revealed the depraved exploitation of children, some as young as 8 years of age, in fields and in mines. Child labor was finally outlawed in 1938.
A century later, 15 year olds are digging tunnels in unsafe cobalt mines. Not in the U.S. but out of sight, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where protective gear is not provided and shifts may run 24 hours or more.
This month, five major companies were named in a federal class action suit filed by the Washington-based International Rights Advocates (IRA) for “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children.”
The companies named are Apple, Alphabet (Google), Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla – allegedly part of a chain starting with a UK mining company selling cobalt extracted by African youths to a Brussels-based trader who then sold battery-grade cobalt to the 5 major tech companies.
A major Chinese cobalt firm was also named in the suit.
The claim was filed on behalf of 14 anonymous plaintiffs who are either guardians of children killed in tunnel or wall collapses or children maimed in such accidents.
In court documents seen by The Guardian newspaper, the Congolese families describe how their children were driven by extreme poverty to seek work at large mining sites where they worked 12-hour days, some for just $2 a day, digging and hauling sacks of cobalt-rich rocks.
The DRC has the world’s largest deposits of cobalt, an essential element of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used to power smartphones, laptops and electric cars. “Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the defendants each year would not be possible without cobalt mined in the DRC,” the legal complaint says.
Lauren Lee, a spokeswoman for Dell, told Fortune magazine this week that the company was investigating the allegations in the lawsuit. “We have never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices, or child labor,” Lee said in an email. “We work with suppliers to manage their sourcing programs responsibly.”
But IRA took issue with tech company claims: “Rather than step up to help these children with a negligible portion of their vast wealth and power, these companies do nothing but continue to benefit from cheap cobalt mined by kids robbed of their childhoods, their health, and for far too many, their lives.”
Said Terry Collingsworth, lead counsel for the child victims, “We will do everything possible to get justice quickly for the children we represent.”
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