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Exploiting and Pillaging the Motherland?

By J.S. Adams, Contributing Writer | Last updated: Jan 8, 2020 - 1:30:05 PM

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Apple, Dell, Tesla Sued for Using African Children to Mine Cobalt

In this April 10, 2004 file photo, a young man carries wet cobalt on his back at the Shinkolobwe Cobalt mine, situated 22 miles from the town of Likasi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Big tech companies including Dell, Apple, Tesla and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, are in hot water with human rights activists. A lawsuit alleges these companies are benefiting from children mining cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo and know it.

Anonymous family members of children who have been killed while conducting these dangerous operations, and some who have been injured, have joined onto the lawsuit as plaintiffs, aim to hold these companies responsible. Additionally, researchers and activists argue another tool in this fight is raising awareness about an issue that most members of the public are ignorant of, as the exploitation of Africa and her resources continue.

Turning a ‘blind eye’

Everyday within the “cobalt belt” in the southeastern provinces of the DRC, thousands of Africans take to the mines with tools in hand, without protective gear, in order to extract cobalt. The country remains the world’s largest producer of cobalt—with more than 60 percent of the product coming from its mines. The mineral is in high demand because it’s essential in making rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which power several tech gadgets and electric cars.

Despite the DRC being one of the most minerally rich countries, with the price of cobalt spiking, that wealth is not spread to the common people. The DRC remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with 80 percent of its population living in extreme poverty.

This is one reason why families are forced into the mines, earning as little as 60 cents a day. Some children must forego an education because their families cannot afford to pay for schooling.

Dr. Roger Claude-Liwanga, a DRC national, has been researching this topic since 2011. He’s photographed, interviewed and interacted with families affected by and suffering from this issue. He says working conditions in the mines are extremely dangerous.

“They use their bare hands to sift, wash and even transport a load of minerals and they are exposed to risk of serious injuries and even getting killed,” Mr. Claude-Liwanga said. “The last time that I was in the DRC in the cobalt mines, it was way over 60 people who got killed underground when they went extracting cobalt. It is a very serious problem.”

Very young children make up the thousands of Africans who take to the mines each day. Mr. Claude-Liwanga said some children are as young as six years old, and have become the breadwinners for their families.

According to the complaint filed Dec. 16, cobalt mined in the DRC is “listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau’s List of Goods Produced with Forced and Child Labor.” Child labor is prohibited under international law.

“The Congolese mining code prohibits children from working in the mines,” Mr. Claude-Liwanga said. “Even the law and protection of children prohibits child labor in the mines.”

However, these laws have not been enough to stop the practice. “It is not a secret that children are working in the cobalt mines,” Mr. Claude-Liwanga said. “Even local governments have enacted to fight against child mining labor, so that the government is aware of that. And the government is not do-ing enough—or is doing nothing—because those who are using child labor are corrupting government officials so that the situation will continue.”

It also says they knowingly participate in supporting and “providing the essential market for cobalt that has caused the explosion of production by young childen.” The suit goes on to say that some of these companies say they have enacted programs to stop themselves from using child labor, however, researchers have traced their sources of cobalt back to mines that use child laborers.

The lawsuit says one of these companies that mines the cobalt is Glencore, which is known for human rights violations. Glencore then sells to Umicore, a Belgian company that processes the cobalt and then sells it to “Apple, Alphabet, Samsung SDI, Microsoft and LG Chem (which supplies Dell and Tesla) for use in cobalt-containing batteries.”

“At the end of the day, those who are benefitting are not only multinationals, but are using the cobalt to make electronic devices or electric cars,” Mr. Claude-Liwanga said. “We as customers are also directly benefiting from child labor because our cellphones, our computers, they are cobalt that are coming from child labor.”

Deplorable conditions

Siddarth Kara, a Harvard University adjunct professor, has spent 20 years of his life researching slavery and child labor. This is the topic he teaches at Harvard, and he’s also published many books on the topic. He turned his attention to cobalt mining in the DRC years ago, because he didn’t see any formal research done on the topic. He took his first trip there in 2018, which became the trigger for filing the lawsuit.

“My plan on that trip was sort of to lay the foundation through this initial survey, some site mapping to do a detailed academic study,” Mr. Kara said. “The sort of disparity, human destruction that I documented and witnessed during that summer led me to think this needed a more urgent path. It would take a few years to do an academic study and then publish a report and make policy arguments. But the severity of human destruction and environmental destruction was beyond most anything I had documented in 20 years in dozens of countries.”

In this April 10, 2004 photo, men use shovels to load cobalt in sacks at the Shinkolobwe Cobalt mine. The mine is situated 21.7 miles from the town of Likasi, in South Eastern, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Upon his return, Mr. Kara wrote an op-ed for The Guardian. He said he visited 31 mining sites in the southeastern provinces of the DRC, in which he says he documented over 250,000 miners, 35,000 of whom are children.

“What I saw was people, children, the vast population of poor, impoverished people in the southeastern provinces being caked in filth and grime, scavenging the earth, bent double trying to just scrounge out as much cobalt as they could in a day to earn maybe a dollar or two,” he said. “I saw people digging tunnels in which they were buried alive. These tunnels collapse far more frequently than anyone can fathom. It just doesn’t get out into the news media. One collapsed 100 meters (328 feet) from me on this last trip when I was doing research.”

Mr. Kara said the people are treated as less than human. “These people are treated as disposable animals by the global tech sector. They are a cheap source of cobalt and if they are injured or killed, then they are simply discarded and replaced with more poor, impoverished and, in their minds, disposable Africans,” he said. “I can’t overstate the severity of human harm, degradation and debasement that’s at the bottom of your iPhone, your smartphone, your tablet, your laptop, or your electric vehicle.”

During his research, Mr. Claude-Liwanga spoke with many people who worked in the mines. All of them—in stories told, and in the lawsuit—remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation by the companies in question.

Mr. Claude-Liwanga spoke with a young man he called “Mark” who broke his spine while transporting 66 lbs. of cobalt from the top of the mountain, to the bottom. While doing the job, Mark fell into a hole and broke his spine.

“Today, he can’t even walk,” Mr. Claude-Liwanga said. “He can barely move his head. Mark was the breadwinner for his family. Can you imagine the situation in which the family of Mark is currently?”

Mr. Claude-Liwanga said there are many “Marks” in the DRC. Their injuries put their families in jeopardy, because it keeps them from being able to support them. Mark was 15 at the time of the injury.

Cobalt mining contributes to ongoing exploitation

Mr. Kara said this sort of exploitation of Africa goes back centuries. “The global north has been pillaging and plundering the resources of the people of Africa for centuries to enrich themselves. It’s the same age-old story simply being repeated by multinational corporations instead of colonial powers,” he said.

The lawsuit says the defendants—Apple, Alphabet, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla—“are merely the latest to join the list of rapacious exploiters that have given the DRC a particularly horrific history of being pillaged and plundered and its people brutalized and exploited.”

It goes on to say that the DRC used to be fertile ground for slave traders between the 16th and 19th centuries, where several million slaves were ripped from their homes. One of the most notable examples is King Leopold II of Belgium taking control of the Congo in the late 1880s. He compelled villagers to bring ivory to his collectors and put villagers under a brutal system in order to make latex gloves when the “rubber boom” hit. The forests of the Congo produced rubber. Villagers that did not cooperate were destroyed.

“None of the colonial powers were held accountable, they did not write one check for one dollar in reparations to the people of Africa, to the countries, the nations that they pillaged, plundered, trafficked and enslaved for centuries,” Mr. Kara said. “No one was ever held accountable, so it goes on and on, now in the guise of shiny multinational corporations.”

Mr. Claude-Liwanga said the supply chain needs to be monitored to ensure tech companies do not use cobalt mined by children.

“These companies ... should perform socio-economic responsibilities, which means building schools, building hospitals, providing clean water for the places where they are extracting cobalt,” he said. “Many places where children are working, there are no schools, no hospitals. Those companies, they have a social responsibility of improving the living conditions of the population where they are extracting and getting the minerals. Unfortunately, they are not doing that.”

Taking action

The lawsuit demands a jury trial for the plaintiffs, as well as awarding each plaintiff with monetary, mental and other damages and ordering the defendants to start a fund to provide care for the injured miners who remain alive.

“The kids who are alive need medical attention badly and we also would like to have some role in making sure that there are actually serious programming to keep this from happening to other kids,” said Terry Collingsworth, executive director of International Rights Advocates, and attorney for the plaintiffs. “Right now as we speak, someone is being injured or killed in one of those mines and we’re going to keep going on until we’re able to stop it.”

The lawsuit further alleges that these tech companies “knowingly benefitted from forced child labor in the DRC” and are also liable under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000.

Mr. Collingsworth said they want the companies to honor their own policies that stand against child labor. “You look on their website—we abhor child labor, we would never blah blah blah blah… it’s all nonsense until they actually do what they promised to do. So that’s all we’re asking them to do—what did you promise to do? You promised to not have child labor in your supply chain. This is not even child labor, this is more like murdering and maiming children. That’s way worse than just child labor. So they ought to be able to fix that,” he argued.

However, fixing this problem has proven to be dangerous. “Our main on the ground researcher has been threatened to the degree that he had to flee the country and go over to Zambia,” Mr. Collingsworth said. “We’ve heard that some of the mining companies associated with Glencore are going village to village to try to match the stories with our people and find those people to try to probably threaten them or worse.”

Both Mr. Collingsworth and Mr. Kara say raising awareness is part of bringing an end to the situation in the DRC.

“We hope that we can get people to do something besides say oh that’s terrible and continue to play games on their phone,” Mr. Collingsworth said. “I think we need people to contact the companies and say look, I have your phone but I’m not gonna upgrade, I’m not going to support you anymore until I learned that you’ve stepped up and stopped this horrible practice.”

Whether these companies are held accountable or not, Mr. Kara says a milestone has still been met.

“Whether our theory or system of law will hold these companies accountable remains to be seen, whether justice will prevail over the crude pursuit of profit remains to be seen, but at least for the first time ever, an effort is being made to hold multinational corporations accountable for the pillage of Africa,” he said.