A UN report on human rights abuses in Eritrea has unearthed new allegations of forced labor at a Canadian-owned mine.
According to the report, released this week, some of the most atrocious human rights violations are happening in Eritrea, an east-African nation that's been compared to North Korea for its widespread forced labor practices. Workers quoted in the report say they were conscripted to work against their will for subcontractors of Canadian mining company Nevsun.
At the Nevsun-owned Bisha mine in Eritrea, workers were punished for taking a break, not working hard enough, fighting, conversing or not following orders. A witness quoted in the report said if workers took a rest they were "tied to the tree, hanging down." Another worker said they were tied up at night so as not to waste their labor during the day. Pay was sometimes withheld as a form of punishment, the UN report states.
The company that operates the mine is 60 percent owned by Nevsun and 40 percent owned by the state's Eritrean National Mining Corporation.
On its website, Nevsun says, "our company does not tolerate any forms of abuse, involuntary labor or discriminatory labor practices."
But human rights lawyer James Yap, who is bringing a class action suit against the Vancouver-based company, says abuses at the mine are all too common. His clients, three former Bisha mine workers, are suing Nevsun for forced labor.
"They alleged they were forced to work at the mine against their will and didn't want to be there but were forced to be there under threat of severe punishment," he told VICE News.
A 26-year-old former Bisha mine worker told VICE News he was forced to work at the mine from January 2011 to October 2013. He did not want his name used for fear of retribution against his family back home. He said he worked at the mine seven days a week — 12 hours from Monday to Saturday and seven hours on Sunday.
"The work was very hard because the climate was very hot, and I was given no protective safety equipment," the former worker said. His comments were relayed to VICE News through a translator.
"We were not given enough food to eat, so I was always very weak and exhausted by the end of the day," he said. "Health problems like difficulty passing urine and diarrhea abounded. I lived in a compound housing about 600 people, sharing 10 toilets and 20 showers."
He told VICE News the mining company's contractor punished him by docking his pay, taking away his lunch breaks or giving him extra work.
"I would not have worked there if I was not forced to. The whole time I was there I was working against my will."
In October 2013 he was transferred away from the mining company to another conscripted job, where he experienced "severe physical punishment."
"It was too much to cope and I decided to leave," he said. In December 2013 he fled on foot across the border to Sudan.
"If you read the [UN] report it really makes you wonder how a Canadian company can be allowed to even do business with such a repressive regime and prop it up, let alone actually benefit from the use of forced labor," Yap told VICE News over the phone Thursday.
Since February 22, 2011, the Bisha facility, which mines copper, silver, gold, and zinc, has raked in revenues of about $1.6 billion and a net income of about $645 million, according to the Eritrean workers' statement of claim. The company, which operates the only mine in Eritrea, provides "massive financial support and incentives to continue Eritrea's system of forced labor and human rights abuses," the lawsuit alleges.
"Eritrea is a rogue state and one of the most repressive regimes in the world," the statement of claim says. The dictatorial state has a well-documented history of forced labor, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, inhuman prison conditions and more," the lawsuit states.
In a statement emailed to VICE News, Nevsun said it attempted to contact the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry and requested a meeting, but the commission did not reply.
The UN rapporteur on the Eritrean human rights abuses was unable to visit the country, but conducted 550 confidential interviews with witnesses to the allegations in the report.
VICE News sent Nevsun questions on the specific human rights abuse allegations raised in the UN report, but the company declined to comment further.
The company also declined to comment on the lawsuit, as the matter is before the courts.
In its statement of defense, Nevsun says it denies allegations that its subcontractors engaged in forced labor, slavery, torture or other abuses in connection with the Bisha mine.
Nevsun says it commissioned an independent human rights impact assessment in 2013 "to better understand strengths and identify areas where human rights best practices can be embedded."
The mining company says an independent human rights lawyer visited the Bisha mine in October 2013 — the same time the 26-year-old former mine worker said he was being forced to work — and January 2014 to gather information. The company also says it consulted with stakeholders and focus groups.
According to the report, there is no statutory minimum wage in Eritrea, "however, all workers and stakeholders stated that wages at the Bisha Mine are attractive and higher than those paid in other sectors." The Eritrean Labor Proclamation "generally accords with basic international standards for hours, holidays and leave for workers undertaking shift work," and the company follows the proclamation "quite strictly," Nevsun's report states.
A summary of the report on Nevsun's website says it recommended adopting "a more explicit human rights policy," conducting human rights training at Bisha, and developing a framework for effective grievances.
Nevsun told VICE News it plans to release an independent audit of its progress later this month.
Yap told VICE News he hasn't seen any evidence that the use of conscript labor at the mine has stopped.
The lawsuit against Nevsun is scheduled to go to court in January 2016.
"Our plaintiffs are hoping to see that some of the money that Nevsun took from Eritrea is returned to the people of Eritrea," Yap told VICE News.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont