Senet operation Eritrea

Human Rights Watch has accused foreign companies of relying on Eritrean government run firms, which use forced or conscripted labour, to exploit the country’s mineral wealth.

In a newly released report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that Eritrea’s first modern mine, a joint venture between the government and Canadian firm Nevsun Resources,is an example of this abuse.

State run company

HRW says the mine, at Bisha, has already produced hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold.  But Nevsun is accused of “failing to conduct human rights due diligence activity and had only limited human rights safeguards in place.”

As a result, it relied on a state run firm, Segen, for construction at the mine.

“Segen is owned by the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and there is evidence that it regularly exploits conscript workers assigned to it by the government,” says HRW.

Worse still, the agency says that other firms, from Canada, Australia, and China are on the verge of other mining operations in Eritrea.

“Nevsun’s experiences show that by developing projects in Eritrea, mining firms are walking into a potential minefield of human rights problems.”

Conscript labour

Nevsun selected a South African construction and engineering company, SENET, as its principal contractor for the Bisha project.

Eritrea map HRWNevsun and SENET then contracted Segen Construction Company, an Eritrean firm, to build roads, staff housing, and other secondary infrastructure at Bisha.

Nevsun says it had no choice in the matter, and told HRW that: “The government of Eritrea required the engagement of Segen…. Segen’s prices were significantly higher relative to BMSC performing the work using its own directly employed staff and equipment and relative to international price norms for the services provided.

“However, the Eritrean government did not permit BMSC to perform the work itself or to engage any other civil engineering contractor.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed four Eritreans who attest that they worked on the Bisha project at various points during this period.

Two were conscripts from the ‘national service’ all Eritreans are required to do – often for years on end, with little or no pay.

Their story

Nevsun photo of Erirea operationsSegen’s conscripts worked long, 12-hour days.

Each morning they would be ferried in flat-bed trucks to the work site from their encampment, and each evening they would be transported back. Respite was limited to an hour mid-day break and Sundays off.

The conscript labourers were forbidden from leaving the Bisha area except during authorized leave. Those who tried to leave at other times were severely punished.

Conscript pay is inadequate to support a family: 450 nakfa per month, equivalent to $30 at the official exchange rate or less than half that at the black-market rate.

They were poorly fed and housed; one of the conscripts interviewed said that food was consistently inadequate and that meat was “out of the question.”

Nevsun responds

The company denies that it is currently using any forced labour at its mine. “The use of conscripted labour at the Bisha site is not allowed,” it says in a statement.

Nevsun chief executive Cliff Davis told a Canadian paper that he was certain that this was the case.

“I’m very comfortable there are not any conscripted workers on site,” Mr Davis said in an interview.

Nevsun “expresses regret if certain employees of Segen were conscripts four years ago, in the early part of the Bisha Mine’s construction phase,” but says this practice does not continue.

It defends its operations, saying that it has provided work for thousands of Eritreans and paid “more than US$400 million in cash remittances to the Eritrean government and government owned entities.”

Working in a dictatorship

The real question for Nevsun, or any other investor, is whether it is really possible to work in one of the world’s most repressive states without infringing the rights of its people.

Eritrea has been regularly cited for its atrocious record: no freedom of speech, no independent media and the dictatorship of a one-party state that regularly uses torture.

Nevsun argues that Eritrea is a country in which there is “no corruption.”

This is not supported by many Eritreans. Nor is it backed by Transparency International, which ranks Eritrea 150 out of 176 countries.

HRW concludes that it is time for the global community to regulate the companies that operate from their territories: “This report serves as a strong example of why governments like those of Canada, Australia, and China need to develop mechanisms that pay close attention to the human rights records of their companies when they operate abroad.”