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Apple & other tech giants seek dismissal of cobalt mine child labor suit

Lithion-ion batteries like this inside an iPhone use cobalt.

Apple, in conjunction with Dell, Google, Microsoft, and Tesla have requested a dismissal of a class-action suit alleging tech companies have knowingly exploited underage labor in local mining for cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries.

The quintet were been named in December in a lawsuit alleging the exploitation of underage labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the time, all of the companies were accused of knowing that the cobalt they buy to use in their battery technologies was originally mined by young children — and ignoring concerns about it.

"The young children mining Defendants' cobalt are not merely being forced to work full-time, extremely dangerous mining jobs at the expense [of] their educations and futures," said the suit. "They are being regularly maimed and killed by tunnel collapses and other known hazards common to cobalt mining in the DRC."

On Wednesday afternoon, in a joint filing, the tech giants filed to have the suit dismissed. In clear language, the filing condemns the use of child labor, and says that since they don't own any cobalt mines, a supplier such as Glencore as named in the suit can't be positively identified as the source of cobalt that they use.

Cobalt is a primary ingredient in batteries. It isn't tracked from source to use, and is mixed many times on its way to the China supply chain. Tuesday's filing also says that following mixing, there is no way to tell where cobalt has originated, by firm, or by mine.

The suit was filed in the US District of Columbia. Filer Terrence Collingsworth of International Rights Advocates filed the suit on behalf of both multiple specific plaintiffs and others similarly affected.

Saying that the plaintiffs expect to add other companies to the case following further research, the suit claims that these firms have all used a euphemism to facilitate the underage work.

"[The workers] are officially referred to as 'artisinal' miners to dress up the fact that this means they are working in a large informal sector of people, including young children, who go to the areas where cobalt is found and use primitive tools to dig and tunnel for cobalt without any safety equipment and without any structural support for the tunnels," the original filing claims.

The cobalt mines in the court filing are owned by Glencore, and a spokesperson from the company has said that it denies using such labor.

"Glencore supports and respects human rights in a manner consistent with the universal declaration of human rights," said a Glencore spokesperson. "Glencore's production of cobalt in the DRC is a by-product of our industrial copper production. Glencore's operations in the DRC do not purchase or process any artisanally mined ore."

"Glencore does not tolerate any form of child, forced, or compulsory labor," the spokesperson continued.

The suit seeks a trial by jury and seeks damages and costs. It also wants the companies to fund medical care for the miners, and an environmental cleanup effort.