U.S. court clears tech giants in child labor case linked to Africa

A U.S. federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that five leading technology companies, including Google parent Alphabet, Apple, Dell Technologies, Microsoft, and Tesla, cannot be held liable for allegedly supporting the use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's cobalt mines.

Publication: 06.03.2024 - 13:42
U.S. court clears tech giants in child labor case linked to Africa
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The unanimous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed the claims made by former child miners and their advocates.

The plaintiffs had accused these tech giants of complicity in a "forced labor" operation by purchasing cobalt, a critical component in lithium-ion batteries for electronic devices, with a significant portion sourced from the DRC. They argued that the companies intentionally overlooked their reliance on child labor, driven by necessity due to hunger and extreme poverty, to satisfy their increasing demand for the metal.

Representing five deceased child miners among others, the 16 plaintiffs sought accountability. However, the appeals court found that the act of purchasing cobalt through the global supply chain does not equate to "participation in a venture" as defined under federal anti-human trafficking and forced labor laws.

Circuit Judge Neomi Rao acknowledged the plaintiffs' right to seek damages but concluded that their relationship with the cobalt suppliers did not extend beyond typical buyer-seller interactions, nor did it demonstrate any control over labor practices.

The ruling raises questions about the responsibility and influence of tech companies in global supply chains, especially regarding ethical sourcing and labor practices. Despite the setback, Terry Collingsworth, representing the plaintiffs, hinted at the possibility of further appeals or new lawsuits based on the court's criteria for liability.

The decision emphasizes the ongoing debate over transparency and accountability in the tech industry's supply chains, with some companies asserting their commitment to human rights and ethical labor practices. The ruling reaffirms a November 2021 dismissal by U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols and involves major cobalt suppliers like Eurasian Resources Group, Glencore, Umicore, and Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, though none were defendants in this case.

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