NEW YORK -- Five of the world's largest tech companies, including electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc., have been accused of being complicit in the death of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo forced to mine cobalt, a metal used to make telephones and computers, in a landmark lawsuit.

The legal complaint on behalf of 14 families from Congo was filed on Sunday by International Rights Advocates, a U.S.-based human rights non-profit, against Tesla, Apple Inc., Google parent Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Dell Technologies Inc..

The companies were part of a system of forced labor that the families claimed led to the death and serious injury of their children, it said.

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

Images in the court documents, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, showed children with disfigured or missing limbs.

Six of the 14 children in the case were killed in tunnel collapses, and the others suffered life-altering injuries, including paralysis, it 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," Terrence Collingsworth, an attorney representing the families, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cobalt is essential in making rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products sold by the tech industry.

More than half of the world's cobalt is produced in Congo.

Global demand for the metal is expected to increase at 7 percent to 13 percent annually over the next decade, according to a 2018 study by the European Commission.

The lawsuit said the children, some as young as 6 years old, were forced by their families' extreme poverty to leave school and work in cobalt mining owned by the British mining company Glencore. Glencore has previously been accused of using child labor.

Some children were paid as little as $1.50 per day, working 6 days a week, it said.

In response to a request for comment, Dell said in an email that it has "never knowingly sourced operations" using child labor and has launched an investigation into the allegations.

A spokesperson for Glencore said: "Glencore notes the allegations contained in a U.S. lawsuit filed on 15th December 2019.

"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."

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

The legal complaint argued that the companies all have the ability to overhaul their cobalt supply chains to ensure safer conditions.

"I've never encountered or documented a more severe asymmetry in the allocation of income between the top of the supply chain and the bottom," said Siddharth Kara, a researcher on modern slavery who is an expert witness in the case.

"It's that disconnect that makes this perhaps the worst injustice of slavery and child exploitation that I've seen in my two decades research," Kara said.

More than 40 million people have been estimated to be captive in modern slavery, which includes forced labor and forced marriage, according to Walk Free and the International Labour Organization.

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The campaign amounts to a significant effort for a vehicle that is being launched into an EV market that remains niche, despite much hype.

Year-to-date, 175,350 electric vehicles have been sold in the U.S, which is less than 2 percent of all vehicle sales, according to figures provided by Kelley Blue Book sourced from insideevs.com. Tesla dominates EVs, selling 491,602 since 2010, compared with just 9,787 by Ford.

But the Mach-E represents a mindshift for Ford, which had previously sold electrified versions of more economy-minded models, like Focus, rather than a brand like Mustang that is known for performance. “This is a huge play by Ford to get serious about EVs,” says Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. It is as much of a corporate branding play as anything, he notes, driven by a desire to be perceived by consumers and analysts as “a forward-thinking, progessive company.”

Ford’s push follows moves by other high-performance brands to take on Tesla, including Audi, which has poured significant marketing behind its new “e-tron” SUV, the first of three battery electric vehicles the luxury brand will introduce over three years. Jaguar, meanwhile, has run TV ads for its electric I-PACE SUV, including one that uses the phrase “roar silently.”

But Brauer says Ford’s Mach-E fills a gap for U.S. buyers who prefer domestic brands and might be lured into buying an EV backed by an iconic brand such as Mustang that has been around a lot longer than Tesla.

Still, he says that does not guarantee the Mach-E will be “an overnight success.” There “is not going to be a single model that comes out in one fell swoop and turns the world into an EV-buying world,” he adds. “It’s going to be a long process of knocking down barriers and knocking down resistance from various demographics one-by-one.”

Ford is targeting a group of buyers it refers to internally as “lovers of the new,” which it refers to in internal documents as “LOTN.” 

“These are folks who are younger, more educated, more affluent,” VanDyke says. “Most of them...have never shopped Ford before. So we are absolutely interested in expanding the audience and bringing new people into the brand.”

Still, Ford wants to avoid turning off Mustang loyalists, some of whom might find anything resembling an SUV to be blasphemous for the pony car brand built on sports coupes. That is why Ford put an emphasis on reaching out to Mustang clubs, including flying members of the enthusiast groups to Detroit to get a behind the scenes look at the Mach-E. Some members of California-based Mustang clubs were scheduled to participate in Sunday’s reveal event.

Ford is also trying to leverage its network of 2,000 dealers who are “certified, trained EV dealers,” VanDyke says, referring to the vast dealer network as a “competitive advantage” over Tesla. The dealers, he says, “are completely motivated to activate their active their loyal owner base.”

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