Teboho Mosebo / GICJ


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), albeit among the world's poorest, is home to some of the world's most valuable minerals, including cobalt. Large tech businesses need cobalt for electronic products, electric cars, and rechargeable lithium ion batteries, and over 70% of the world's cobalt mining occurs in the DRC. Unfortunately, there is a cost to mining these minerals; child labor, environmental violations, and safety hazards are commonly associated with the process.


In the DRC, young children—some as young as six years old—are forced into inhumane working conditions and child labor. Forty thousand of the 255,000 Congolese who mine cobalt are youngsters [1]. Children labor in these mines in frequently hazardous conditions, a result of the lax oversight and enforcement surrounding cobalt mining.

An analysis from 2023 showed how child labor is impacted by poverty in the DRC's artisanal cobalt mines. In the DRC, families are finding it difficult to make ends meet as a result of growing costs, and many are hungry. As a result, kids are compelled to take up mining work, and their families depend on the money they earn from this to meet their basic necessities. It has been observed that these kids receive encouragement from their parents or follow their peers, neighbors and siblings [2].

Initial lawsuit against tech companies 

On 15 December 2019, International Rights Advocates, a human rights organisation based in Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit against Google, Apple, Tesla, Microsoft, and Dell on behalf of fourteen DRC parents and children. The corporations were accused by anti-slavery economist Siddharth Kara of complicity in the deaths and severe injuries of minors employed in the cobalt mines. In addition to seeking additional compensation for unjust enrichment, careless supervision, and purposeful infliction of emotional distress, the families also sought damages for forced labor.

Due to the fact that cobalt is necessary for the rechargeable lithium ion batteries that power the millions of products sold each year by Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft, and Tesla, the lawsuit claimed that these businesses encouraged the mining company to exploit children for labor, forcing them to work in hazardous conditions that resulted in fatalities and serious injuries. In addition, the families from Congo claimed that their children were working illegally in mines operated by Glencore, a mining firm based in the United Kingdom. They went on to describe how their kids labor dangerous jobs like searching for cobalt rocks in underground tunnels using crude leads for as low as $2 a day.

The families also claimed that some of the children perished in tunnel collapses, while others sustained accidents that left them crippled or permanently injured. One of the main claims made in the complaint was that Apple, Dell, Google, Microsoft, and Tesla were participants in the child labor force and knew specifically that the cobalt they used in their products was tied to child labor conducted in hazardous conditions.

Response from the accused tech companies 

In response to the accusations, a representative for Glencore emphasised that the organisation does not accept child, forced, or coercive labor of any kind, and that it supports and upholds human rights in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Conversely, Apple stated that they are steadfastly committed to ensuring that the materials used in their products are sourced responsibly and that their suppliers must always meet the highest standards. Microsoft did not respond, but Dell stated that it is dedicated to ethical mineral sourcing, which includes protecting workers' human rights and treating them with dignity and respect across their supply chain [3].

The DRC's action against child labor

Children and their teachers participated in protests and parades on 30 September  2023, bearing banners with messages advocating for the outlawing of child labor in mines. This effort, which was backed by the media and reached over 1,800 people, including educators, students, and other community members. Comparable events took place in the Kambove community on October 7–9, involving around 1,050 people, including government representatives, police officers, and childcare facility managers. The DRC government also established the Inter-Ministerial Commission to address the problem of child labor [4].

Recent court ruling on the allegations of child labour 

The US Court of Appeals decided in favor of Dell, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Tesla in March 2024, rejecting their claims that they encouraged the cruel exploitation of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's cobalt mines. The appeal court contended that under federal law safeguarding minors and other victims of forced labor and human trafficking, purchasing cobalt as part of the global supply chain did not amount to taking part in an enterprise.

The Circuit Judge, Neomi Rao, ruled that the plaintiffs had the right to pursue damages, but she did not find that the five large corporations had any authority to prevent the use of child labor, nor did they have anything more than a buyer-seller connection with the suppliers. She went on to emphasise that a number of other parties, such as labor brokers, other cobalt consumers, and the DRC government, are also accountable for such labor. However, she clearly stated that the tech companies were not guilty as they were not in any participation of child labour.

Terry Collingsuath, the families' attorney, stated that his clients have the opportunity to file an additional appeal and emphasised that, despite their zero-tolerance policy against child labor, the court ruling serves as a powerful incentive to avoid any openness on the part of the defendants with their supplier. Finally, voicing dissatisfaction with these companies, he stated that they are not even close to looking for responsibility.

Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) acknowledges the appeal court's ruling, but remains harshly critical of the DRC government for permitting child labor to occur under its watch. We call for the enactment and implementation of both national and international labor laws to prevent such inhumane conditions. We also call on companies not to ignore the human rights violations that occur throughout their supply chains, and instead seek for them to use their influence to stamp them out. Child labour cannot be allowed to be profitable, and all parties must work to eradicate it.

[1]. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/drc-mining-industry-child-labor-and-formalization-small-scale-mining




Picture source: https://twocircles.net/2010oct14/coal_mining_meghalaya_child_labourers_’ratholes’.html

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