The lawsuit, brought on behalf of children allegedly forced to mine cobalt, also raises claims of unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A group of tech and automobile companies is facing a federal class action for forced child labor in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and other claims. The suit is brought by 14 Doe plaintiffs who are either guardians of children killed in tunnel or wall collapses while mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or children who were maimed in such accidents. Apple, Alphabet (Google), Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla are named as the defendants—all U.S. corporations headquartered in the United States.
The plaintiffs are represented by a lawyer from the International Rights Advocates (IRA).
The DRC has the world’s largest deposits of cobalt, an essential element of rechargeable lithium-ion battery in products made by all tech and electric car companies, IRA observed. While the tech boom has caused an explosion in demand for cobalt, the 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, IRA pointed out.
Knowing use of brutal child labor. According to the complaint, these U.S. companies “are knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children to mine cobalt, a key component of every rechargeable lithium-ion battery used in the electronic devices these companies manufacture.” These children are not just forced to work full-time, extremely dangerous mining jobs at the expense their educations and futures, they are also regularly maimed and killed by tunnel collapses and other known hazards common to cobalt mining in the DRC.
The named plaintiffs represent a group of children “who were forced by extreme poverty to leave school and pursue the only economic option in their region of the DRC—become ‘artisanal’ cobalt miners,” the complaint states. These children allegedly work in a large informal sector of people, including young children, who go to the areas where cobalt is found, using primitive tools to dig and tunnel for cobalt with no safety equipment and no structural support for the tunnels. The plaintiffs contend that major tunnel collapses are common, and miners are regularly maimed or killed in theses collapses, with the bodies of those trapped often never recovered.
Researchers. The legal team representing the plaintiffs includes two renowned researchers and experts on forced child labor, Professor Siddharth Kara and Dr. Roger-Claude Liwanga. Professor Kara stated, “this lawsuit represents the culmination of several years of research into the horrific conditions of cobalt mining in the DRC. From the moment I met [the plaintiffs’ attorney] and described my findings to him, he has been committed to holding these companies accountable for enriching themselves at the expense of the most vulnerable children of the Congo. 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.”
Dr. Liwanga, a DRC national, commented, “this is the beginning of the end of impunity for those who have been economically benefiting from child labor in the DRC’s mining industry. DRC children also have an inherent and inalienable right to be protected from economic exploitation.”
Other claims and relief sought. In addition to forced labor, the plaintiffs are raising common law claims of unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They are asking the court for money damages, consequential damages, punitive and exemplary damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs, among other things.
The plaintiffs also want the court to order the defendants to create a fund for appropriate medical care for the plaintiffs and class members who were injured while mining cobalt for the companies, to conduct medical monitoring for negative health impacts for the plaintiffs and class members who were exposed to cobalt and other toxic chemicals while mining cobalt for the defendants, and to clean up the environmental impacts caused by the companies’ use of suppliers for cobalt that failed to take any steps to protect the environment where they were mining for cobalt.
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