Tech Giants Try to Dismiss Lawsuit Accusing Them of Child Labor Violation

August 27, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Google headquarters on Jan. 24, 2016, in Mountain View, Calif. Many tech companies in Silicon Valley are coming under scrutiny from U.S. antitrust enforcers. (Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Some of America’s technology giants are trying to get a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit accusing them of promoting the use of children to mine cobalt for their lithium-ion batteries.

Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla said in their motion to dismiss this week that they cannot control the cobalt mines in the Congo.

While they condemned child labor, they said the cobalt is so intermingled with other chemicals when they receive their imported products, they cannot trace it back to the mines where it originated.

Plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit include parents of children killed in tunnel or wall collapses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other plaintiffs are children who were injured in mining accidents.

“Ad hoc civil litigation in U.S. courts is not an effective vehicle for addressing the broad, systemic problems that plaintiffs allege led to their injuries,” the companies said in their motion to dismiss. “Instead, those issues are better addressed by policymakers in Congress and the executive branch in cooperation with civil society, industry groups and foreign governments.”

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used for hand-held electronics and electric vehicles because they are rechargeable and can hold stored electricity better than other kinds of portable power sources.

They are credited with helping to propel mobile electronic devices and vehicles into major industries.

The joint court filing from the five companies said they “strongly condemn” the child labor conditions mentioned in the class action lawsuit but that their global supply chain is far removed from any direct influence over them.

They said their policies seek to end forced and child labor in their supply chain. They also have contributed financially to human rights activists and whistleblowers who identify and report violations of international labor rights.

The lawsuit was filed by anonymous plaintiffs listed by names such as John Doe and Jane Doe. They want their lawsuit to represent perhaps tens of thousands of children working in Congo’s cobalt mines.

It accuses the tech giants of condoning “brutal exploitation” that is “fueled by greed, corruption and indifference to a population of powerless, starving Congolese people.”

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the human rights organization International Rights Advocates.

Their lawsuit in the case of International Rights Advocates v. Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla cast doubt on the companies’ claims that they were not involved in the child labor.

“Defendants know and have known for a significant period of time the reality that [the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s] cobalt mining sector is dependent upon children, with males performing the most hazardous work in the primitive cobalt mines, including tunnel digging,” the lawsuit says. “These boys are working under stone age conditions for paltry wages and at immense personal risk to provide cobalt that is essential to the so-called ‘high tech’ sector, dominated by defendants and other companies.”

Widespread use of cobalt in their products indicates they must have known about the hazardous child labor, the lawsuit says.

“…every smartphone, tablet, laptop, electric vehicle or other device containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery requires cobalt in order to recharge,” the lawsuit says. “Put simply, the hundreds of billions of dollars generated by the defendants each year would not be possible without cobalt mined in the [Democratic Republic of the Congo].”

The lawsuit derives part of its legal authority from the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which forbids a range of human trafficking that includes child labor. Participants in human trafficking ventures can face severe criminal and civil penalties.

The companies argue that a global supply chain is not a venture under terms of the law.

Apple has told CNN Business the computer company “remains deeply committed to the responsible sourcing of materials into our products.” Last year, Apple removed some chemical refiners from its supply chain that did not meet its ethical standards.

Dell has said in a statement that it “never knowingly sourced operations using any form of involuntary labor, fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor.”

Alphabet Inc., whose subsidiary is Internet giant Google, filed an additional motion this week to be removed from the lawsuit by arguing it should not be liable “only by virtue of its corporate structure.”The case is Jane Doe 1 et al. v. Apple Inc. et al., number 1:19-cv-03737, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

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