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Apple, Tesla among tech firms sued over child deaths in cobalt mines

Alphabet, Microsoft and Dell are also named in the lawsuit.

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A miner fills a bag with cobalt at a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images

Several US tech companies are being accused of benefiting from cobalt that's mined by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nonprofit group International Rights Advocates this week filed a lawsuit in the US District Court in Washington on behalf of 14 plaintiffs who are the guardians of children either killed or seriously injured in tunnel or wall collapses while mining cobalt in Congo. The defendants named in the suit are Apple, Google parent company Alphabet, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla.

Cobalt is key in the production of the lithium-ion batteries found in phones, laptops and tablets, as well as the batteries used in electric vehicles. About 60% of the world's cobalt supply comes from Congo, and about 20% of it is mined by children, Amnesty International reported in 2016.

"This lawsuit represents the culmination of several years of research into the horrific conditions of cobalt mining in the DRC," said professor Siddharth Kara, a researcher on the plaintiffs' legal team, in a release Sunday. "I hope our efforts are worthy of the courageous families who shared their immeasurable torment with us, and that justice and decency will triumph over the pursuit of profit at any cost."

Apple on Tuesday said it's "deeply committed" to the responsible sourcing of materials and that it publishes a list of its 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," an Apple spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "We've removed six cobalt refiners in 2019."

Dell said it's investigating the allegations in the lawsuit and that it's committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals.

"We have never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor," a Dell spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. "Any supplier with reports of misconduct is investigated and, if misconduct is found, removed from our supply chain." 

Google on Tuesday offered a similar statement, saying its supplier code of conduct "strictly prohibits" child labor and endangerment. "We are committed to sourcing all materials ethically and eliminating child mining in global supply chains," a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

The other companies named in the suit didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. 

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Apple's efforts

The technology industry has long struggled with getting the components its gadgets need and making sure they're sourced responsibly. Many materials essential for electronics are sourced from countries with poor human rights records, like Congo. 

Apple, for its part, has taken steps to make sure its products use more recycled parts and are more environmentally friendly. The company's Daisy recycling robot pulls apart 1.2 million iPhones a year to reuse their components, and Apple in 2018 said all of its facilities around the world now run on 100% clean power. It also has leaned on its suppliers to be more environmentally friendly and has released reports about the conditions in their factories

CEO Tim Cook in 2014 famously said he doesn't "consider the bloody ROI" (return on investment) when it comes to issues like the environment, accessibility and worker safety.

In its 2019 supplier responsibility report, Apple said that "we require our suppliers to treat their employees with dignity and respect. They must provide fair working hours, a safe workplace, and an environment free from discrimination. From Day One, they must inform their employees of these rights and guarantee anonymous channels to voice concerns if they arise."

The company said in its report that if suppliers will not fix problems like employing underage or involuntary labor, Apple will stop working with that company. Twenty such companies have lost Apple's business because of noncompliance, it said. Last year, that included two cobalt and five 3TG (tungsten, tantalum, tin and gold) smelters and refiners. 

Originally published Dec. 17, 10:45 a.m. PT
Updates, 11:18 a.m. PT: Adds background about Apple; 1:56 p.m.: Adds comment from Google.