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11 Mar 2024

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters

DRC: US federal court refuses to hold five major technology companies liable over their alleged support for the use of child labour

‘US court sides with Apple, Tesla, other tech companies over child labor in Africa’ 6 March 2024

A federal appeals court on Tuesday refused to hold five major technology companies liable over their alleged support for the use of child labor in cobalt mining operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a 3-0 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL.O), opens new tab, Apple (AAPL.O), opens new tab, Dell Technologies (DELL.N), opens new tab, Microsoft (MSFT.O), opens new tab and Tesla (TSLA.O), opens new tab, rejecting an appeal by former child miners and their representatives. The plaintiffs accused the five companies of joining suppliers in a "forced labor" venture by purchasing cobalt, which is used to make lithium-ion batteries that are widely used in electronics. Nearly two-thirds of the world's cobalt comes from the DRC.

…The 16 plaintiffs included representatives of five children who were killed in cobalt mining operations. But the appeals court said buying cobalt in the global supply chain did not amount to "participation in a venture" under a federal law protecting children and other victims of human trafficking and forced labor. Circuit Judge Neomi Rao said the plaintiffs had legal standing to seek damages, but did not show the five companies had anything more than a buyer-seller relationship with suppliers, or had power to stop the use of child labor.

…Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in an email said his clients may appeal further, and could file new lawsuits if the companies' conduct met the court's test. The decision provides "a strong incentive to avoid any transparency with their suppliers, even as they promise the public they have 'zero tolerance' policies against child labor," he said. "We are far from finished seeking accountability." Dell said in a statement it was committed to upholding the human rights of workers throughout its supply chain, and has never knowingly sourced products made with child labor. Google had no immediate comment. Apple, Microsoft, Tesla and their respective lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.