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Hundreds of men drafted into Eritrea’s army were used as forced labour to build a Canadian company’s copper-gold mine in central Eritrea, according to a former construction official, in a case testing the global responsibility of foreign firms to workers.
Claims of forced labour at the Bisha mine, jointly owned by Nevsun Resources Ltd. and state-owned Eritrean National Mining Corp., date back to 2008 but are now the subject of a class-action lawsuit at British Columbia’s Supreme Court.
Eritrean plaintiffs, living in exile in Ethiopia, say in the lawsuit filed last November that they were forced to build the only operating mine in the Horn of Africa country during national service, enduring filthy conditions, little food or scarce payment.
Although Nevsun was not directly responsible for hiring local staff – that was done through local contractor firm Segen – plaintiffs argue the Canadian company was complicit in their servitude, a claim the Vancouver-based company denies.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs would not discuss how much money they are seeking from the company.
Although accusations about Bisha date back seven years, this is the first time workers have tried to take legal action outside Eritrea, which lawyers say could act as a warning to foreign companies working with regimes accused of human rights abuses.
“The case is still in its preliminary stages … [but] if the plaintiffs win, it will set a precedent,” University of Ottawa law professor Penelope Simons, a human rights legal specialist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“So far very few of these types of cases have proceeded to trial … Where a government systematically uses forced labour and a corporation goes into business with that government, there is a significant risk the corporation will become complicit.”
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