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Allegations of conscripted labour in Canadian mine: the fifth estate

A Vancouver-based mining company that struck gold in the small North African country of Eritrea is being accused in a B.C. lawsuit of permitting forced labour to be used in the construction of its mine. The

A Vancouver-based mining company that struck gold in the small North African country of Eritrea is being accused in a B.C. lawsuit of permitting forced labour to be used in the construction of its mine.

The allegations filed by three former Eritrean conscripts in B.C.’s Supreme Court accuse Nevsun Resources of being “an accomplice to the use of forced labour, crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses at the Bisha mine.”

The lawsuit contains untested allegations of beatings, torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of workers at the hands of the Eritrean government. Nevsun denies the allegations.

“We’ve done extensive investigations,” Todd Romaine, Nevsun’s vice-president of corporate social responsibility, told the fifth estate. “There’s no corroborating claims to support any of the allegations being made.”

Todd Romaine

Todd Romaine is the vice-president of corporate social responsibility at Nevsun Resources, the Vancouver mining company that owns and operates a gold and copper mine in Eritrea. (CBC)

Nevsun went into business in Eritrea in 2007, operating a mine in the mineral-rich area near the town of Bishia in central Eritrea. In that first year of production alone, Nevsun reported revenues of $548 million US.

Its Bisha mine is 40 per cent owned by the Eritrean regime, a brutal dictatorship that the UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea accused of human rights violations that may constitute crimes against humanity in a special report last June.

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki, once a freedom fighter, has been criticized by a former U.S. ambassador to Eritrea as “an unhinged dictator.”

‘Not of my own free will’

In 1995, Afwerke introduced military conscription to Eritrea. This means that everyone in the country under the age of 50 is forced to serve in the military for an indefinite period.

In affidavits filed before the B.C. Supreme Court in 2015, three men allege human rights abuse and conscripted military labour in the construction of the mine. These claims could not be independently verified.

the fifth estate tracked down two of these men in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

One of them, Kesete Tekle Fshazion, says that while he was officially released from the military in 2003, he “remained effectively under the control of the Eritrean military,” until he fled for Ethiopia in 2012.


Kesete Tekle Fshazion is one of three Eritrean men who have filed a suit in a B.C. court. He says that although he was officially released from the military in 2003, he “remained effectively under the control of the Eritrean military,” until he fled for Ethiopia in 2012. (CBC)

Fshazion says he started working at the Bisha mine at the end of 2008.

“The entire time I worked at the Bisha mine, I was not there of my own free will,” he said, in his affidavit filed in October 2015.

“I believed that I could not refuse the assignment to the Bisha mine because if I had refused, the authorities would have detained me and I would have been severely punished.”

Fears for his safety

Mihretab Yemane Tekle was another Eritrean tracked down by the fifth estate who also says in his affidavit that he was forced to work at the Bisha mine.

He says he arrived there in February 2010 along with about 50 other men from his battalion, and was assigned to work on the construction of the tailings pond.

“Temperatures there were sometime as high as 47 degrees Celsius,” Tekle said in his affidavit. “The black plastic sheets with which we worked only intensified this heat, and there was no real shade available to us to shelter us from the sun.”

“Many conscripts caught Malaria … were also prone to diarrhea and numerous other illnesses as a result of our weakened state and the extremely difficult conditions in which we worked,” he said in the affidavit.

He also said he witnessed conscripts receiving severe forms of punishment for simply leaving the camp overnight.

Nevsun in Eritrea: Dealing with A Dictator (preview)1:08

“What scares me is that some spies may pose as refugees from Eritrea, as they come everyday, and maybe some will come and put our lives at risk,” Tekle said in the affidavit.

At the refugee camp in Ethiopia, Tekle told the fifth estate that he believes that people from the Eritrean government would try to harm or even kill him before he had a chance to testify.

“My wish was to leave [here] before the case began. But now that it has started, I fear for my life.”

UN investigations

Last June, the UN released a scathing 484-page report on human rights abuses in Eritrea, including the allegation of forced labour at the Canadian mine during the construction phase.

“Unfortunately the United Nations methodology in this case was very biased, selective, it only included people from outside the country,” Romaine told the fifth estate.

Eritrea did not let the UN Commission of Inquiry into the country as it prepared its report.

The UN had other concerns.

A UN Security Council group has long accused Eritrea of supporting al-Shabaab and other armed guerilla groups in the Horn of Africa.

Once revenues from the mine were flowing to the Eritrean government after 2011, the UN investigators wanted to know if the Eritrean regime was using any of its revenue from the mine to continue to support rebel groups in the region.

Eritrea President Issaias Aferworki

Eritrean President Issaias Aferworki has been in office since independence in 1993. (Peter Busomoke/AFP/Getty Images)

“I can’t comment on government policy,” Romaine told the fifth estate.“What I can say is our company is fully transparent with all the monies that are generated from the Bisha mine.”

But that’s not how the UN sees it.

In 2014, the Security Council Monitoring Group reported that Nevsun “refused to disclose” information on how payments were transmitted to the state of Eritrea, citing “confidentiality agreements.”

Nevsun told the monitoring group that questions “should be directed to the state of Eritrea.”

But when the UN asked the Eritreans for banking information, they passed the buck back to the Canadian company, telling UN investigators they “should direct specific questions to Nevsun.”

The Vancouver company has expanded its mining operations in Eritrea, and it believes there’s enough zinc and copper in the ground to keep making money at the mine until 2025.

Source: CBC Canada

Review overview
  • BerheTensea February 12, 2016

    In Canada justice seekers are very active and a nightmare to the dictatorial regime
    As most people remember the council general in Canada was sent back home to Asmara , and the slavery tax is forbidden to be collected in Canada. People such as journalist Aron of Meftif news paper have played a great role in confronting the regime in Canada against all odds and hostility by the regime’s supporters.
    The PFDJ hand in Canada is tied and no one is intimidated by them.
    The justice seekers are also registering the die hard ignorant supporters for future reference and pay back time.
    The regime’s people in Canada are so scared and they are using individual business owners to bring their Wukabe or Zar singers unofficially.
    The regime in Eritrea is practicing the long dead slave labour in this modern age.
    In Sawa the commanders are enslaving women for their sexual appetite, and the men are used to look after their cattle, goats, hens and sheep, and to cook, wash and iron their clothes.
    Slavery is well and alive in Eritrea.
    Few weeks ago a female member of aghelglot who was abused sexually have shot her abuser and she is in detention. Assena please try to verify this sad news, and if I have more information I will post it here.
    The young are also being sold to the friends of the dictator and his generals the Rashaida to be used as spare parts for the wealthy in the Middle East.
    People need to wake up and try to stop the evil that is causing pain and suffering unseen in this modern age.

  • k.tewolde February 12, 2016

    Corporate of social responsibility for real?,this is corporation for social exploitation, lairs.As for the mining sites,at one time I tracked through or camped on them, and some of them are smack down on the land my grandfather reared generations.Ironically,all the righteous owners are outside looking in or dead. The tyrant and his henchmen who are not related to us are making sure we don’t come back to claim what is ours.

  • yohannes February 12, 2016

    Fifth estate made a very professional investigative journalism and I’m extremily pleased they went to the limit to shed light to our dire misery. It is unbiased and original account of Canadian journalism bringing Nevsun to their knees with unprecedented embarassement. The senior Nevsun officials exposed their amateurish desperate coverup. Simply proud of the fifth estate

  • Musa Ali February 13, 2016

    Of course no one can expect the selfish company leaders to admit the use of slave force in eritrea that every eritrean knows. The PFdj and blind supporters as the nevsun people will try to cover this impossible to cover facts. Hope to see nevsun pay for its crimes against these vioceless innocents

  • Berhe Tensea February 13, 2016

    Big companies in the West are there to make billions especially by exploiting third world resources . African resources such as oil and gas benefiting many big companies and few African leaders. Look at how life is for the ordinary Nigerian that is poverty or first class poverty.
    The modern day Wube is making billions of dollars. Eritrea to Iseyas is just like a means of production with hundreds of free slaves to use.
    Iseyas not only he hates and uses us he also despises us.
    Eritrean specially in diaspora need to be men and know their right and see around and side ways to see how people of the world live and or how they are treated by their governments.
    Some times I am ashamed to say I am an Eritrean fearing of disaster comments about so many sad happening to our people on the part of the outsiders.

  • David February 14, 2016

    Slavery is alive and well in Erltrea. The Canadian company and their investers
    are doing very very well. They are not going to
    tell the truth about the abuse of our people. It is our job and obligation to be the voice of all the Eritreans who drowned and got killed on their way to freedom from the dictator. We need to be honest and ask what
    the government is doing with all the money??????