The UN has accused a Canadian company of using forced labour at Eritrea’s only active mine in a hard-hitting report released in June.
Nevsun Resources, which owns a majority share of the Bisha copper and gold mine and oversees its operations, has repeatedly come under fire over the use of conscripted labour since construction of the mine began in 2008.
Sheila Keetharuth, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea who collected the evidence, said in July: “Forced labour was used, especially in the construction phase, for the simple reason that all construction [operations] are done under the government.”
Eritrea’s national service programme requires every citizen over 18 to serve in the military or work for the government, often indefinitely.
Former labourers told the Guardian that working conditions at the mine were terrible, and wages low. “The climate was very hot, and I was given no protective safety equipment,” said one, who asked for his name to be withheld. “We were not given enough food to eat, so I was always very weak and exhausted by the end of the day. Health problems like difficulty passing urine and diarrhoea abounded. I lived in a compound housing about 600 people, sharing 10 toilets and 20 showers.”
Another miner, who also asked not to be named, said: “For the first six months, I was not paid. Then after a group of us complained, we started getting 145 nakfa per month – equivalent to $3 in the black market. Six months afterwards, this was increased to 860 nakfa per month.”
Last December three Eritreans filed a lawsuit against Nevsun in a Canadian court over allegations that it forced them to work long hours for little pay.
Nevsun has denied that forced labour has been used at its mine, and the company has said it will “vigorously defend itself” against the lawsuit. Cliff Davis, Nevsun’s CEO, said: “We are confident that the allegations are unfounded. Based on various company-led and third party audits, the Bisha Mine has adhered at all times to international standards of governance, workplace conditions, and health and safety.
“We are committed to ensuring that the Bisha Mine is managed in a safe and responsible manner that respects the interests of the local communities, workers, national governance, stakeholders, and the natural environment.”
Responding to the UN commission’s findings, the Eritrean government has dismissed the report as “unfounded” and “devoid of all merit”.
The Eritrean government did not allow the UN commission to visit Eritrea. “They should have allowed us in the country … and allowed us to see what was the situation inside,” Keetharuth said.
Nevsun also rejected the UN’s findings: “A recent UN commission report included some sensational and unbelievable human rights allegations with respect to the Bisha Mine, which allegations were made without visiting either the mine or the country,” said Davis.
The use of conscripted labour in Eritrea’s mining sector was first reported by Human Rights Watch in 2013, who said: “Nevsun’s experiences show that by developing projects in Eritrea, mining firms are walking into a potential minefield of human rights problems. Most notably they risk getting entangled in the Eritrean government’s uniquely abusive program of indefinite forced labour – the inaptly-named ‘national service program’.”
More than 130,000 people have signed a petition asking Nevsun to “stop supporting slavery in Eritrea, or else close the Bisha mine”.
The country’s fragile economy has become dependent on revenues from its burgeoning mining sector, which has attracted a host of Australian, Canadian and Chinese firms all looking to cash in on untapped mineral reserves.
There are four mines being developed in Eritrea at present, but just one is currently exporting minerals. Bisha, which began mining gold before transitioning to copper production in 2013, has generated $755m (£484.74m) in revenues for the Eritrean government since it broke ground in 2011, according to financial statements released by Nevsun (pdf).
These funds are a lifeline for a regime that has been crippled by UN sanctions, imposed after reports emerged that President Isaias Afwerki’s government was training and funding Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab, a charge that Eritrea has denied. Eritrea does not publish an annual budget, but the government has said that mining revenues are spent on development programmes.
The mineral boom is currently driving an economic resurgence, with the country posting a record $3.8bn in gross domestic product last year. The Eritrea National Mining Corporation has reported further deposits of gold, copper, potash, zinc, oil, natural gas, cement, gypsum, granite, marble, ceramics, limestone and iron ore.
More mines are due to begin production in the next two years. Canadian firm Sunridge Gold has said it will begin gold output from its Asmara mine this year, while Australian mining company Danakali has said it will announce this year when it will begin potash production at its Colluli mine. Another company, Sfeco, a subsidiary of Chinese firm Shanghai Construction Group, is developing its Zara gold mine in the north of the country, but has not yet indicated when it will start production.
Sfeco and Danalaki have not yet commented on the human rights situation in the country. Sunridge Gold has said it will “understand, promote and uphold fundamental human rights within our sphere of influence, respecting the traditional rights of Indigenous peoples and valuing cultural heritage.”
Because of this investment, the African Development Bank has boosted its forecast for Eritrea’s economic growth to 2.1% this year, up from just 1.3% in 2013, “reflecting improved economic activity and increased investment in the mining sector”.
In contrast with rights groups, UK government officials have said they are satisfied with Nevsun’s commitments to ensure forced labour is not used at Bisha. “Earlier [in June] foreign office officials held a meeting with representatives of Nevsun … [who] set out the strict procedures in place to prevent national service conscripts working at the Bisha mine,” House of Lords whip Patrick Courtown said in a letter written in June (pdf). “We hope that this will serve as a model for other mining operators in Eritrea.”
In response to questions about this issue from the Guardian, a Nevsun spokesman said the company is aware of the ethical complexities of working in the country and is involved in “broader discussions about the situation in Eritrea”.
“Broadly speaking, the government of Eritrea wants to ensure its emerging mining sector is developed in a responsible and meaningful manner that maximises benefit to their population and attracts international investment,” the spokesman said.
“Nevsun does believe that a few individuals have other political motivations regarding Eritrea and continue to take steps to try negatively impact the image and progress of the country in developing its mining industry.
“It is rather ironic that those that purportedly champion human rights issue are targeting an industry that can directly generate taxation for community infrastructure and social programs as well as provide real incomes and skill development for people within Eritrea.
“Mining is an industry that can play a meaningful and constructive societal role in the country’s ongoing development, and assist in the reduction of migration flows.”
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