Empowering the Freelance Economy

Big tech’s child labour problem isn’t going away

Cobalt mining has become synonymous to modern slavery.
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A recent US court decision has thrown a wrench into the fight against child labour in the tech industry, according to news reports. Will IT contractors speak up or keep silent for fear of losing their jobs?

The ruling shields tech giants Apple, Google (under its parent company Alphabet Inc.), Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla from liability for child labour found in their cobalt supply chains, according to a Freedom United report. This has left many IT contractors, the invisible backbone of these companies’ operations, wrestling with a moral dilemma.

What is cobalt and how is it tied to child labour?

Most people working in the tech industry will be familiar with cobalt. However, for those who are not familiar, cobalt is a key component in lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones and laptops. This natural resource is often mined under dangerous conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where child labour is rampant. The DRC has over 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves. According to a 2021 report by Amnesty International, “hundreds of thousands” of children toil in the DRC’s cobalt mines (Amnesty International, “This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt).

The court’s decision, citing “ordinary buyer-seller transactions” with suppliers, essentially absolves these tech giants of responsibility for the human cost of their products. This leaves IT contractors, who likely share the public’s aversion to child labour, in a difficult position.

Reuters reported that according to the complaint:

Companies ‘deliberately obscured’ their dependence on child labour, including many children pressured into work by hunger and extreme poverty, to ensure their growing need for the metal would be met.”

The ruling, according to Freedom United, stated that “many actors in the cobalt supply chain perpetuated labour trafficking and abuse, from labour brokers to the DRC government.

However, the court found that issuing an injunction to these five companies would not stop child labour from entering the supply chain as the injunction would not hold the direct perpetrators of child labour and abuse accountable. Contrary to the court’s opinion, advocacy groups and the plaintiffs feel absolving the companies sends the wrong message.

Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer for the plaintiffs stated:

“[This 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 labour.”


Beyond the courtroom: what can be done?

While the court decision is arguably a setback for child protection advocates, it doesn’t signal the end of the fight against child labour in the tech supply chain. Freedom United, for instance, emphasises the need for legislative reform. Several US states are considering laws that would explicitly outlaw slavery and hold companies accountable for ethical sourcing (Source: Freedom United, latest modern slavery fight updates).

Tech workers could have a more active role to play whether they are permanent staff members or contractors. Putting pressure on their recruitment agencies and employers through internal channels or joining advocacy groups are ways to make their voices heard.

However, with so many of our devices being powered by cobalt, this is something that has to be addressed beyond just the tech industry. Every industry and probably every person you know is contributing often unknowingly as a consumer.

Given the tech giants are making billions in profits, they have the resources to find new solutions. New excavating methods and alternative livelihoods for miners could be a start. The other is to find alternatives such as high-nickel cathodes, lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), solid-state batteries and lithium-titanate (Li-Ti) batteries. However, any extraction of natural resources could lead to just more modern slavery in a new location. Alternatives that eliminate such crimes of humanity are our only option.

The recent court decision may have shielded tech giants for now, but it has also shone a light on the ethical complexities of the IT industry. For many tech contractors, the path forward is clear: demanding an end to child labour and inhumane working conditions in cobalt mines. But will they stay silent or start making some noise?

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Want to learn more about this topic? Check out the book Cobalt Red by Harvard professor Siddharth Kara who explains what he has witnessed in the cobalt mining industry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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