The Swiss mining giant Glencore is at the center of a new legal case against Big Tech in the United States over the “extreme abuse” of children mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Several of the fatalities and injuries highlighted in the US class-action civil lawsuit allegedly occurred on Glencore-owned sites, according to the testimony of plaintiffs included in court records.
Cobalt – a by-product of copper and nickel mining – is an essential component of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in the electronic devices produced by Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla. It is commonly found in smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles.
The American tech companies are named as the defendants in a civil case filed in Washington D.C. by International Rights Advocates, an organisation dedicated to corporate accountability through litigation on behalf of 14 Congolese families. It accuses the tech companies of “aiding and abetting” the mines exploiting child labour to source cobalt.
“In my 35 years as a human rights lawyer, I’ve never seen such extreme abuse of innocent children on a large scale,” said the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Terry Collingsworth, when presenting the claim in a statement. “This astounding cruelty and greed need to stop.”
The case marks the first time that the tech industry confronts legal action jointly over its cobalt sourcing.
The plaintiffs' lawyer claims that Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla “knew or reasonably should have known that the cobalt supply chain ventures operated by Glencore/Umicore and Huayou Cobalt were using forced child labour.” All five tech companies prohibit the use of child labour in their suppliers' codes of conduct.
Asked about the case, Apple and Dell Technologies told swissinfo.ch they were deeply committed to responsible sourcing. Apple noted it has been mapping its cobalt supply chain to the mine level since 2016. Dell said it was investigating the allegations and had informed the Responsible Minerals Initiative.
Glencore is not named as a defendant in the case, the Swiss mining and commodity trading company stressed in a statementexternal link in response to questions raised by swissinfo.ch.
“Glencore does not purchase, process or trade any artisanally mined copper or cobalt,” the multinational stated.
Other defendants did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Collingsworth and two researchers who helped build the case call into question whether Glencore operated responsibly in the central African nation.
They accuse the company of fuelling the artisanal mining boom by buying raw materials from resellers who in turn buy from artisanal miners.
The DRC produces 60% of the world’s cobalt supplies. Surface-digging, rinsing, sorting and tunnel-digging are some of the activities undertaken by adults and children.
The researchers on the case estimate that thousands of children mining cobalt – including in concessions owned by Glencore – are forced to work under hazardous conditions at risk of losing life and limb and at the expense of education.
The risks for children in this sector have been flagged over the years by Amnesty International, World Vision, and others.
Amnesty International saysexternal link “human rights abuses in Congo power the global trade in cobalt.”
As young as 6-years-old
Some of the child miners, the class action lawsuits notes, are as young as six and have been trafficked to work on the mines. Ten of the plaintiffs in the case were severely wounded or maimed. “John Doe 3” lost his leg at a mine operated by a subsidiary of a Chinese mining company.
Some of these accidents allegedly took place on sites owned by Glencore.
A 16-year-old boy codenamed “James Doe 2” in the lawsuit mined cobalt six days per week to support his family, according to the court filing.
He was killed when a tunnel collapsed at Tilwezembe, one of Glencore’s mining sites in southern DRC, on Jan. 14. Boys identified as “Joshua Doe 2” and “James Doe 12” reportedly died while mining the same site.
Glencore says it had no hand in the matter, adding that the concession has long been overrun by trespassing artisanal miners.
“Since 2011, Glencore has had no access to the concession and does not have any operational or commercial involvement with it,” the company said in a statement. “Glencore has repeatedly requested the DRC government to take action to resolve the situation.”
But the plaintiffs accuse the mining giant of indirectly sourcing minerals from those same mines. They argue that this made the company complicit in the child labour and hazardous conditions there. The mining company says that the claims are incorrect.
Roger-Claude Liwanga, a fellow at Harvard University and co-researcher in the case, claims that based on his research two Congolese mining companies tied to Glencore had made deals with local cooperatives of artisanal miners who extract cobalt ores from Glencore-owned concessions.
“Those agreements with the cooperatives of artisanal miners are non-compliant with the provisions of the DRC Mining Code that stipulates that the mining concessions, which are dedicated to industrial mining, cannot be used for artisanal mining,” he says.
The lawsuit then goes on to claim that the output of artisanal miners at Tilwezembe was sold to Glencore by a "sham cooperative" set up to bypass the new Congolese Mining Code. Glencore says that allegation is also incorrect, reiterating that it does not "purchase, process or trade in any artisanally mined copper or cobalt."
Siddharth Kara, who researched this issue in DRC, told swissinfo.ch that based on his research it was his impression that the Tilwezembe mining site was secured by the "military on behalf of Glencore.” Glencore says that the allegation is incorrect.
Kara said he visited dozens of mining sites in two provinces in the summer of 2018, but Tilwezembe was the only one he could not access due to strict entry controls.
More than 35,000 child miners
“The problem is not limited to Tilwezembe – it is endemic across all Glencore-owned cobalt sites that I documented,” said Kara, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
He estimates there are more than 35,000 children working in the Congolese cobalt sector in conditions so shocking that they warranted “strategic litigation”.
Collingsworth said that he was looking into suing Glencore, but did not elaborate.
“Glencore may never admit it, but they rely on penny-wage artisanal cobalt mining to boost their production at minimal expense," Kara said. "When those people are injured or killed, they claim illegal trespass and that their sites are overrun.” Glencore says that the allegation is incorrect.
The researcher attributes the high presence of children in the mining sector to three reasons: Adult wages at $1-2 per day are too low to ensure family survival so children must become breadwinners. Children begin working in the sector after the loss of a parent due to mining activity. Rural residents are uprooted en masse to make space for industrial mining.
Glencore – trying to do better?
By its own count, Glencore had three fatalities in its DRC operations in 2019. The toll excludes the dozens of “trespassing” miners who were killed when part of the open-pit mine collapsed in the Kolwezi area, triggering a military intervention. Mining accidents in the mineral-rich African nation often take place in remote areas and are underreported.
Glencore says it employs 15,800 people in the DRC and that it discourages artisanal mining by supporting economic diversification programmes for communities living near its operation. It says its local subsidiary KCC provided educational summer camps to “help children and their parents understand the risks associated with artisanal mining.”
None of the child laborers named in the complaint were able to attend school, Liwanga noted. He said he had not witnessed such community-focused efforts by Glencore during their work in DRC. Liwanga: “Most children in Kolwezi don’t attend schools because their parents are unable to pay the school fees for them.”
Kara was equally unimpressed. He slammed the notion of holiday camps saying the term is “repugnant to the realities on the ground” when what is truly needed is schools.
Glencore said earlier this month that it would join the Responsible Sourcing Blockchain Network, an industry collaboration focusing on the potential of blockchain technology to increase transparency along the supply chain from mine to market.
Starting February 2020, the initial focus of Glencore’s participation will be cobalt, the company said.
Update: This story was updated to include additional comment by Glencore.