Elon Musk’s car company Tesla is among five of the world’s tech giants accused of aiding child labour in Africa.

A legal complaint on behalf of 14 families from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was filed on Sunday by International Rights Advocates – a US-based human rights non-profit group.

It accuses the firms – which also include Apple Inc, Alphabet Inc, Microsoft Corp and Dell Technologies Inc – of being complicit in the death of children who are forced to mine cobalt – a metal used to make telephones and computers – in a landmark lawsuit.

General view of a copper and cobalt mine of Kolwezi, Congo
Image: General view of a copper and cobalt mine of Kolwezi, Congo

The complaint says the companies were part of a system of forced labour that the families claimed lead to the death and serious injury of their children.

It marks the first time the tech industry has jointly faced legal action over the source of its cobalt.

Images of children with disfigured or missing limbs were filed in court documents in the US District Court in Washington DC.

Six of the 14 children in the case were killed in tunnel collapses, while others suffered life-altering injuries, including paralysis, the complaint said.

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The lawyer representing the families, Terrence Collingsworth, said: “These companies – the richest companies in the world, these fancy gadget-making companies – have allowed children to be maimed and killed to get their cheap cobalt”.

The complaint said that some children were paid as little as $1.50 (£1.13) per day, working six days a week.

“Starve or go risk your life to try to eat. Those are the choices for these people,” Mr Collingsworth added.

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Image: Apple Inc is also accused of aiding child labour in Africa

Cobalt is essential in making rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products sold by the tech industry – and more than half of the world’s cobalt is produced in the DRC.

Over the next decade, global demand for the metal is expected to increase at 7% to 13% annually, according to a 2018 study by the European Commission.

A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi, Congo
Image: A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt after a first transformation at a plant in Lubumbashi, Congo

In a statement, Dell said that it has “never knowingly sourced operations” using child labour and has launched an investigation into the allegations.

Tesla, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Glencore did not immediately respond for comment.

Siddharth Kara, a researcher on modern slavery who is an expert witness in the case, said the case was perhaps “the worst injustice of slavery and child expert exploitation that I’ve seen in my two decades research”.