International watchdog exposes use of forced labour in Canadian-Eritrean gold project

International group Human Rights Watch said Tuesday the Eritrean government has been using forced labour to construct a gold mine, in a joint venture with Canadian Nevsun Resources Ltd. (TSX: NSU).

According to the report, the Vancouver-based miner failed to ensure that forced labour was not used in the construction of its African Bisha gold project.

The 29-page document, Hear No Evil: Forced Labour and Corporate Responsibility in Eritrea’s Mining Sector, describes how mining companies working in Eritrea risk involvement with the government’s widespread exploitation of forced labour. It also documents how Nevsun – the first company to develop an operational mine in Eritrea – initially failed to take those risks seriously, and then struggled to address allegations of abuse connected to its operations.

Although the company has subsequently improved its policies, it still seems unable to investigate allegations of forced labour concerning a state-owned contractor it uses, the document said.

“If mining companies are going to work in Eritrea, they need to make absolutely sure that their operations don’t rely on forced labour,” 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.”

Eritrea is one of the world’s poorest and most authoritarian countries.

In recent years the country’s largely untapped mineral wealth has provided a badly needed boost to its economic prospects.

The Bisha project, majority owned and operated by Nevsun Resources, is Eritrea’s first and so far only operational mine. It began gold production in 2011 and produced some $614 million worth of ore in its first year. 

Other large projects led by Canadian, Australian, and Chinese firms are in the pipeline, however. Numerous exploration firms are scouring other leases for new prospects.

Nevsun's response

In a statement posted in Nevsun’s web site in anticipation of yesterday’s report, the miner said it became aware of the allegations back in 2009.

The company added it had, since then, expanded its employee safeguards to cover those employees working in Eritrea.

“[We express] regret if certain employees of Segen were conscripts four years ago, in the early part of the Bisha Mine's construction phase," Nevsun said.

Nevsun Resources operates the Bisha mine through a joint venture with Eritrea’s state-owned mining firm, the Eritrea National Mining Corporation (ENAMCO).

(Image of participants at an Eritrea vigil in London, by pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com)