Strong preventive measures against hiring forced labour are essential for mining companies with projects in Eritrea, a new report from Human Rights Watch says.
In a report released today called “Hear No Evil: Forced Labour and Corporate Responsibility in Eritrea’s Mining Sector,” the non-governmental organization warns that the African nation’s government has a “national service” program that “conscripts Eritreans into prolonged and indefinite terms of forced labour, generally under abusive conditions.”
The report documents how national service conscripts are “regularly subjected to torture and other serious abuses,” and that the government “exacts revenge upon conscripts’ families if they desert their posts.” The New York-based NGO also notes that many Eritreans have been forced to work as conscript laborers for more than a decade.
Most of the conscripts are assigned to the country’s military, the watchdog explains, but some are forced to work for state-owned companies, some of which are construction firms that the government “pressures international companies to take on as contractors,” such as the Segen Construction Company. Segen, it maintains, “has a long track record of allegedly deploying forced labour in connection with its projects.”
HRW also pointed its finger at Nevsun Resources (NSU-T, NSU-X), which has used workers from Segen at its Bisha mine in the country.
In a press release four days ago, Nevsun alerted shareholders that it anticipated the release of the HRW report and that the use of conscripted labour at the Bisha site is not allowed. It also said that its 60%-owned subsidiary, Bisha Share Mining Company, has strong practices and procedures to ensure that all workers at Bisha are working of their own free will and are not conscripts. The procedures include the inspection of national service discharge documentation for all workers at the mine, it explained.
“In early 2009, within a few months of the start of mine construction, Nevsun became aware of allegations that a particular subcontractor, Segen Construction, might be employing conscripts from the country’s national service,” Nevsun said. “Unfortunately at the time, BMSC’s national service discharge document inspection procedures did not apply to subcontractors. In response to the allegations BMSC acted quickly by immediately extending its procedures to include subcontractors and by obtaining a written guarantee from Segen that it would not use conscripts at Bisha.”
Nevsun further noted in its Jan. 11 statement that it regrets if certain employees of Segen were conscripts four years ago in the early part of the mine’s construction. “Segen is controlled by the Eritrean State and BMSC is required to use Segen for certain construction work at Bisha,” it added. “BMSC is not allowed to do such work itself or to engage any other subcontractor for such work.”
The Vancouver-based mining company also confirmed that about 10% of the 1,400 Eritreans employed directly or indirectly at Bisha are Segen employees, but said all Segen employees will leave Bisha by the end of August 2013 when their work is completed.
HRW acknowledged that the greatest risk of abuse appears to be in the early stages or construction phase of a project, and that it “has not encountered allegations that forced labour is currently being used at Bisha.” But it warns that monitoring is extremely challenging both for independent human rights watch investigators and for companies.
“Nevsun says that Segen has promised not to use forced labour at Bisha,” HRW continues. “But Segen refused Nevsun’s requests to interview Segen employees to verify that they are working at Bisha voluntarily,” it says. “Segen has also refused to allow Nevsun to visit the site where its workers are housed to assess conditions there. In 2010, Nevsun began providing food to Segen’s workers after receiving reports that they had deplorable living conditions and inadequate food.”
HRW also notes that last year Nevsun tried to expand the mine without hiring Segen, but the Eritrean government objected and the mining company “was forced to bring Segen back on.”
Emailed requests to Nevsun for comment were not returned by presstime.
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