Court dismisses child labor case against Big Tech

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on March 5 dismissed a child labor case against technology companies and refused to hold them accountable for their alleged complicity in the use of children in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Former cobalt miners and their representatives filed a lawsuit against Alphabet (Google), Apple, Dell Technologies, Tesla and Microsoft under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). The TVPRA penalizes anyone who "knowingly benefits financially from participating in a venture that engaged in trafficking crimes." They claimed that the companies were involved in a "venture" with their suppliers that engaged in forced labor of children to obtain the metal.

Cobalt is a metal used to make rechargeable batteries for electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops. The DRC has the world's largest reserves of cobalt and provides almost two-thirds of the technology sector's needs.

The former miners argued that the tech companies purchase cobalt from international suppliers who source from outfits that exploit children and force them to work in "informal mining." This labor includes digging for cobalt in tunnels with high risk of fatal collapses. The miners claimed the tech companies participated in a venture that depends on forced labor, in violation of the TVPRA.

According to the lawsuit, Congolese children work in cobalt mines to escape poverty and starvation, and are sometimes even directly coerced by force or threats. The lawsuit asserted that the five companies are aware of these illegal acts, and yet continue to buy cobalt from these international suppliers. Miners and their representatives claimed that forced labor is therefore "furthered" by the tech companies.

However, the court rejected these claims and dismissed the lawsuit, upholding a lower court's decision. It stated that in order for charges under the TVPRA to proceed, claimants have to prove the tech companies' actual "participation in a venture" engaged in forced labor, and that the fact that "tech companies purchase an unspecified amount of cobalt from a supply chain originating in the DRC mines does not plausibly demonstrate" such participation. 

From Jurist, March 6. Used wit permission. 

Note: The informal mining outfits in the DRC are also linked to paramilitary groups that have committed atrocities against the mine workers as well as local residents.