Eritrea's vast mineral resources have recently been tapped by a Canadian firm, Nevsun, the first company to open a mine in the incredibly poor and repressive African country.
But, Human Rights Watch in a report released today called "Hear No Evil," says the company has not adequately investigated the possibility that they are using forced laborers, "loaned" by the government's subcontractor, Segen.
Through interviews and attempts to investigate the human rights situation at the project site, HRW found that Nevsun was unable to say for sure that they weren't using forced labor and that many workers admitted that they had been subjected to subpar conditions and were in fact being forced by the government into "national service."
Eritrea, which borders Sudan and Ethiopia and has a long history of political instability and border conflicts with its neighbors, uses a harsh national service system, ostensibly to ready the population should Ethiopia attempt to invade.
However, instead of military training, many of the people indentured in national service are used for various other means, and rejecting the government results in death, kidnapping and torture, or danger to one's family.
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All able-bodied men and most women must serve the government indefinitely through the national service program, says HRW. And Segen, an Eritrean government firm, has rejected all investigation attempts by both HRW and Nevsun. However, Nevsun has been cooperative with the HRW investigation, despite the lack of due diligence done before they began mining in 2011.
In a 2009 report called "Service for Life," Human Rights Watch looked into the national service sector of Eritrea, and exposed the realities of conscription.
"The repressive apparatus required to keep so many unwilling people conscripted and mobilized is extensive: summary executions, brutal punishments, reprisals against families, and a huge prison infrastructure outside the rule of law in which acts of torture and cruel treatment are commonplace and committed with impunity.
"National service conscripts serve in the army, work on national development projects, or are loaned to private firms controlled by army officers and government allies for their gain. Compensation is minimal and non-compliance is not an option."
It's loaning people to private firms that has come under scrutiny this week, and Nevsun is implicated in using forced laborers in their gold mine, Bisha.
The four people interviewed for the report were all former workers at the Bisha mine. They "uniformly said that a large proportion of Segen’s personnel at Bisha at the times they worked there were national service conscripts —and that many had served well over the 18-month statutory limit."
Two of the four have since fled the country after being conscripted into national service for years, one for 13, the other for four.
Human Rights Watch insists that any human rights violations by subcontracting firms that run the mines implicate the mining companies, like Nevsun, which have a responsibility to make sure they are not using forced labor, and end the practice if it turns out to be the case.
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Nevsun says they never even had a choice in subcontractors and they didn't realize that Segen was owned and operated by the Eritrean government's ruling party, which HRW calls "a critical oversight."
Nevsun is presently the only foreign company operating a mine in Eritrea, but other projects headed by Canadian, Australian, and Chinese firms are already in production.
David Hughes, the CEO of an Australian company, South Border Mines, was also interviewed in the report, and admitted his company "had so far given no consideration to — let alone carried out any due diligence activity around— the human rights risks involved with developing the project or its infrastructure."
Other foreign firms must also look into the human rights abuses in Eritrea before entering into projects there, says HRW.
“If mining companies are going to work in Eritrea, they need to make absolutely sure that their operations don’t rely on forced labor,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, business and human rights senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If they can’t prevent this, they shouldn’t move forward at all.”
For more of GlobalPost's reporting on labor practices worldwide, check out our Special Report "Worked Over: The Global Decline of Labor Rights."