Deadly Child Labor Could Be Huge Obstacle for Biden’s Goal of an Electrified American Road

June 9, 2021 Updated: June 15, 2021

A class-action lawsuit on behalf of a group of mothers and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) against five U.S.-based Big Tech giants may short-circuit President Joe Biden’s plans to electrify American transportation.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $15 billion to build “a national network of 500,000 charging stations” for the electric vehicles (EVs) he wants Americans to adopt as part of his vision for eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Putting millions of new EVs on U.S. highways means skyrocketing demand for batteries that are at the heart of the litigation.

Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Dell Technologies Inc., Microsoft Inc., and Tesla Inc. “are knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt, a key component of every rechargeable lithium-ion battery used in the electronic devices these companies manufacture,” claims the suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Dec. 15, 2019.

“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; they are being regularly maimed and killed by tunnel collapses and other known hazards common to cobalt mining in the DRC,” according to the suit.

Cobalt is essential for producing lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones, as well as EVs like those produced by Tesla. More than half of the world’s known cobalt reserves are in the DRC.

Although not directly linked to the suit, a further factor in its potential effect on the Biden administration and the world economy is that China makes two-thirds of all lithium-ion batteries. As a result, most of the cobalt mined in the DRC ends up in Chinese factories.

Terry Collingsworth, executive director of International Rights Advocates Inc., the Washington-based nonprofit responsible for the litigation, told The Epoch Times in a recent interview that the suit is moving slowly in federal court.

“What has happened is we filed the case, then they filed a motion to dismiss, and we did some briefing, we responded, and all of the briefs were completed and filed by Dec. 16, 2020, and now we’re waiting for a decision,” Collingsworth said.

‘James Doe 3’

The suit makes multiple claims, which, taken together, paint a picture of hundreds of young boys, many of them pre-adolescents, working long hours in perilous conditions at great risk to themselves.

The plight of “Jane Doe 3” and her son, “James Doe 3,” illustrates the conditions that gave rise to the suit:

“Jane Doe 3 is the mother of James Doe 3, her child who was killed in a mining accident on April 26, 2018, when he was 14 years old. She brings the claim to recover for the death of her son.

“James Doe 3 was born on July 2, 2004, and finished the 6th grade of school. He had to quit because his family did not have money for school fees. He worked with his mother for two years growing and selling vegetables.

“In early 2018, he went to work as a tunnel digger at the Tilwezembe mining site, which is owned and controlled by Glencore, which sells cobalt to Umicore. Umicore then processes the cobalt mined by Glencore with the forced labor of plaintiffs and thousands of other child miners in the DRC, and then supplies the refined cobalt to Apple, Alphabet, Samsung SDI, Microsoft, and LG Chem (which supplies Dell and Tesla) for use in cobalt-containing batteries,” the suit states.

James Doe 3 earned about $2 per day, which he gave to his mother. On April 26, 2018, Jane Doe heard that her son was buried in a tunnel collapse, and she and her husband raced to the mine.

“When they arrived, someone threw a rock at her and hit her eye. Her husband had to take her to the hospital, but her right eye is now permanently blind. When the parents were able to check with the mine, they learned their son’s body was trapped in the tunnel collapse and they were unable to recover his body. Numerous other children were buried alive in this same tunnel collapse.”

The suit asks the court to award multiple damages to all affected DRC individuals, as well as attorney fees and related expenses. The suit also asks the court to direct the defendants to establish a fund to cover the costs of future medical care for the injured and to clean up environmental damage caused by cobalt mining.

Reaction

While the suit has gone largely unnoticed outside of the United States’ business media, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) is very much aware of the issue of cobalt mining and child labor because of the threat it represents to Biden’s plans to limit and ultimately eliminate fossil fuels and replace them with renewable energy sources.

Johnson, a critic of Biden’s energy policies, notes that getting Americans out of gasoline-powered vehicles and into EVs is essential for such conversions but getting there means millions more batteries and soaring demand for cobalt.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that this rush to ‘renewable’ energy and electrification of the economy would require a staggering amount of additional battery production, which has been placed on the backs of children in Third World countries,” Johnson told The Epoch Times.

“The human rights violations currently taking place in Third World countries to produce ‘environmentally friendly’ products for the First World consumer cannot continue to be ignored. These companies should put an immediate end to the staggering levels of child labor exploitation taking place in the name of environmental justice.”

Similarly, Dan Kish, senior fellow at the Institute for Energy Research (IER), told The Epoch Times “it’s ironic that the energy technologies most often supported by and used by Western elites for virtue signaling are almost wholly dependent upon slave labor, child labor, and environmentally degrading practices prohibited in their own countries.”

Kish said that “whether it’s electric vehicles, solar, wind or batteries, the messaging is all ‘the Jetsons’ while the reality is actually Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle.'” He was referring to Sinclair’s sensational 1906 expose of oppressive working conditions in the meatpacking industry.

Asked for comment on the litigation, a White House National Security Council (NSC) official speaking on background would only say that “the United States encourages responsible and sustainable mining practices by promoting good governance; supporting resilient supply chains that respect human rights, improve livelihoods, and reduce conflict; and mobilizing greater U.S. private-sector investment in this key DRC sector.”

“The U.S. Department of Labor’s 3-year Combatting Child Labor in the DRC’s Cobalt Industry program supports key stakeholders to develop and implement strategies to reduce child labor and improve working conditions in artisanal and small-scale mines, and in the broader supply chain,” the official said.

Companies Respond

Tentative movements by some of the defendants away from cobalt began before the suit was filed. Tesla, for example, is moving away from batteries that require cobalt.

The company reportedly will begin using a new “million-mile” battery that offers longer range and lower costs that was developed in conjunction with China’s Amperex Technology. The new battery, which has low- and no-cobalt versions, is to be installed only in Tesla Model 3’s produced in China, but its use is expected eventually to widen to other models and markets.

Dell’s media relations office told The Epoch Times via email that the firm “is committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals for our products. This means promoting and upholding the human rights of workers at any tier of our supply chain and treating them with dignity and respect.

“We have never knowingly used any form of involuntary labor, nor employed fraudulent recruiting practices or child labor. And we work with suppliers to manage their sourcing programs responsibly. Any supplier with reports of misconduct is investigated and may be subject to removal from our supply chain.”

Dell publishes an inventory of cobalt refiners in its supply chain. Thirteen of the 17 refiners on the current list are in China.

Microsoft’s media relations office declined to comment. Spokesmen from the media relations offices of Apple and Alphabet didn’t respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment.

Congressional correspondent Mark Tapscott may be reached at mark.tapscott@epochtimes.nyc