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Microsoft, Apple, Google, and more say they aren't responsible for child labor in DRC

Microsoft Logo at Ignite
Microsoft Logo at Ignite (Image credit: Windows Central)

What you need to know

  • Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla are all accused of utilizing child labor.
  • Child labor is being used in mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • The companies say they don't own the mines and use a third-party supplier, so a connection can't be confirmed.

Apple, Google, Microsoft Dell, and Tesla are all of the opinion that they are not responsible for the use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to reports. The companies say that while child labor is being used in mines used to help produce batteries, it isn't their responsibility because they don't own the mines and use a supplier instead.

As Law360 and AppleTerm report, the companies told a federal court that they "strongly condemn" the conditions in the mines but that they aren't responsible for them.

The tech giants told a D.C. federal court in a joint motion to dismiss Tuesday that although they "strongly condemn" the conditions described by more than a dozen Doe plaintiffs, the entities responsible for the labor violations are multiple degrees away from the companies on the global supply chain.Because the tech companies don't own the mines and there is no way to prove the cobalt in their products came from a certain mine, the suit must be dismissed, the tech companies argued. A multi-tier global supply chain makes it so that by the time they purchase the cobalt, it is mixed with materials from several mines, making it impossible to know for sure where it originated, according to the motion.

The case first popped up in December 2019, with The Guardian noting that the companies are accused of "aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children."

Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by human rights firm International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The lawsuit, which is the result of field research conducted by anti-slavery economist Siddharth Kara, accuses the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who they claim were working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.

The parents are concerned about the "brutal exploitation" of the country and believe that there is an "indifference to a population of powerless, starving Congolese people."

It's unlikely that the response of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla will do anything to make them feel any less like that's the case.

9 Comments
  • Two things. 1. It depends on what proportion of the world's cobalt supply comes from. If lots of cobalt is coming from slavery and child labor, that's damning of everyone who is buying cobalt. One thing in history comes to mind: in the 19th century, British abolitionists pushed (directly and indirectly) for expansion of cotton production in areas without slavery (i.e., NOT the US South). 2. I don't blame activists for focusing fire on big companies. Some of this might be stupid anti-capitalist demagoguery, yes -- but not all of it. You can think of it as a strategy to get people's attention on this important issue. Using famous/infamous companies is just part of the strategy.
  • Andrew, I know we're often on different sides of these kinds of issues, but I think I'm with you on this one. While I believe MS and the others that they have no way to tell where their cobalt came from, they could seek to require that their cobalt come only from certified slavery-free sources. Companies can do a lot to influence their supply chains, reducing pollution, improving labor conditions, etc. Having said that, depending on what % of the cost of the products comes from cobalt (I have no idea -- didn't even know they used cobalt), it may be tough for any one of them to change unilaterally -- if it suddenly started costing one company much more to buy a critical component, it may not be able to produce and sell its own products priced competitively. There needs to be either a major customer demand for slavery-free cobalt (including willingness to pay more for them) or teaming of the companies agreeing to only buy slavery-free cobalt (which could trigger legal repercussions for market collusion), or something like Trump's tariffs against China being applied to all products produced using slave labor conditions.
  • and how many of tthose parents who are suing allowed their children to work in the mines? or sold them to the mine owners?
  • How many? What's the answer? You have no idea of course.
  • That is similar to saying, as a consumer of said products produced by those companies, are those parents just as responsible (that is of course implying that they use any kind of technology that uses material from said mines)
  • No, it's not. The consumers don't have the power in the cobalt market MS and Apple and others would have. Same with the parents - blaming the parents here is ludicrous.
  • If one country makes a rule where citizens have to be 16 years old to work, and another country makes that number less - it doesn't mean country A is exploiting country B; it means that countries and cultures are allowed to believe in different things, and make their own laws. By appreciating other countries differences, we will find that we are no longer 'world police' but instead respectful neighbors.
  • While I agree that the US shouldn't play world police and impose its norms and ideas worldwide, this issue isn't how you make it out to be. This isn't about 16 year olds. In fact, 16 year olds can work in the US. This is about actual children, younger than teens. That's not an acceptable work condition objectively anywhere despite cultural differences.
    Further, while you can let them have their way, you can require that US companies don't use resources that rely on child labor. They could always have inspections and audits.
  • Of course not. its always someone else