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DATE: December 17, 2019

SNIP: Some of the biggest technology firms in the United States have been accused in a lawsuit of complicity in the death and maiming of hundreds, if not thousands of African children who mine cobalt, a mineral vital to the production of the lithium-ion batteries in everything from smartphones to electric cars. The defendants named in the suit are Apple, Google parent company Alphabet, Microsoft, Dell and Tesla.

The lawsuit was filed Sunday in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. by the non-profit organization International Rights Advocates, on behalf of 13 anonymous plaintiffs from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The complaint accuses the tech giants of “knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo (‘DRC’) to mine cobalt.”

The suit demands a trial by jury for the plaintiffs, who include maimed child miners and the families of others killed in the cobalt mines.

Human rights Lawyer Terry Collingsworth of International Rights Advocates told CBS News that his organization “traced the supply chain back from the mine where the children were either killed or maimed and have traced it back up to these companies.”

The lawsuit calls for the companies to take responsibility for child miners in their supply chains, and change the way they source the metal.

Research by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that in 2012 there were about 40,000 children working in the DRC mines. More than half of the world’s supply of cobalt comes from the DRC, and 20 percent of that is mined by hand, according to Darton Commodities Ltd., a London-based research company that specializes in cobalt.

Widespread reporting about the horrific conditions for children in DRC’s cobalt mines has increased pressure on these companies for several years. But the lawsuit filed on Sunday, which was first reported by The Guardian, is the first legal action brought against the American companies.

Last year, CBS News correspondent Debora Patta traveled to the DRC. She and her team saw first-hand how gruelling and dangerous it is to extract cobalt from the ground — and they saw children doing it.

CBS News witnessed children barely 10 years old lugging heavy sacks of cobalt to be washed in rivers. Even those too young to work, including dust-covered infants clinging to their mothers and playing on the dirty ground, spent much of the day breathing in toxic fumes, Patta found.

Officials in DRC denied there was child labor, but for the CBS News crew, it was plain to see. Whenever a camera or security person or policeman appeared, the children were chased away.