Forced Labour in Eritrea: in Light of the HRW Report on Mining Companies and Abuse of Forced Labour
With a population of about 5 million, Eritrea is a small country located in the horn of Africa, along the red sea. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of bloody war against Ethiopia. Today Eritrea is a pariah state with absolute disregards of international laws and norms and a collapsed economy.
The government of President Isaias Afwerki is the most repressive regime in the continent.
Eritrea is ruled without constitution and legislative body or national assembly; all aspects of human rights have been violated; formation of political parties is banned; and no elections have been conducted since independence. There are no freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and access to information. Arbitrary arrests and disappearances, extrajudicial killings and force labour are the norms in Eritrea.
Its belligerent and adventurist foreign policy and behavior has brought the government of Isaias Afwerki into direct military confrontation with all neighboring countries. Eritrea has gone into war with Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Particularly the war with Ethiopia was the most devastating with far reaching consequences in terms of human loss and its economic and political impacts. The aftermath of the 1998-2000 has been characterized by the no-war-no-peace status; declining economy; worsening human rights conditions; the adoption, expansion and intensification of the military and forced free labour economy; and the worsening of the human rights conditions.
The UN Security Council has slapped sanctions on the Eritrean regime 2009 for its military and financial support to Al Shabaab, a terrorist insurgency group in Somalia and for forcefully occupying Djiboutian territories.
On January 15, 2013, under the title ‘Hear no evil: Forced Labour and Corporate Responsibility in Eritrea’s Mining Sector’, Human Rights Watch published its Report of its research on the use of forced labour by International companies in the mining sector in Eritrea. The report exposes how the Canadian mining company Nevsun Resources is complicit in the use and abuse of free forced labour in its mining project in Bisha, Western Eritrea. At the time in which many international companies are rushing to exploit and secure bigger share of Eritrea’s untapped mineral resources, the report also warns that international companies risk falling into the trap of using forced labour unless they take prior preventive measures and put safeguards in place at early stages before they engage in actual mining development or else not to invest at all in Eritrea. The report warns that the international companies cannot be exempted from their corporate social responsibility for human rights violations related to their operations in Eritrea.
But why does it matter if international companies use free forced labour in Eritrea when the whole economy is based on free forced labour - the equivalent of modern slavery?
Through the “Warsay-Yikealo program” launched in 2002, forced free labour has been institutionalized and remains the main supplier of the bulk labour force for the Eritrean Economy. Thus all sectors and almost all economic activities are dependent on free forced labour.
Actually the concepts and practices of forced free labour are not new but as old as the Eritrean revolution itself. However, they have evolved and have been fine tuned through time to climax into the current level and form. During the struggle time for independence, Eritreans were forced to work for the revolution such as preparing food, carrying and transporting arms, weapons, ammunitions and supplies and performing economic activities without pay. Even their draught animals were forced to provide free services to the revolution. The people had no choice, they had to respect the orders otherwise they had to bear the consequences.
The fighters were not paid a single penny, particularly in Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF). Tens of thousands were recruited by force and worked and died for the revolution without any payment. The revolution tried to instill the mentality of free labour as being good for the revolution and nation – the mentality of living for the sake of the nation and others. According the revolution’s and the government’s theory and propaganda machines, the sole reason for one’s living is to serve the nation hence working for one’s own well being is considered corrupt, antisocial and unnatural behaviour.
But this does not apply for every citizen. Senior military officers and government officials are privileged with many favours including the use of forced free labour for their own private gain. Working for free is acceptable but asking reward from the work you do is labeled as antisocial behavior.
After the EPLF controlled Eritrea in 1991, it maintained its policies and practices of the use of the forced free labour. After the fighters served without payments and passed miserable lives for 2 years, in 1993 president Isaias Afwerki declared that the fighters would continue to remain in the service of the nation for another two years without payments. His declaration led to spontaneous uprising of the armed forces which forced president Isaias Afwerki to back down his decision.
Following the uprising the regime was forced to maintain a downsized paid professional army. But hundreds of fighters were detained for their alleged roles for mobilizing and leading the uprisings. But the regime never abandoned its policy of the use of forced free labour. It learned lessons from the uprising and came out with better and effective strategies and plans as to how to implement its policy of forced free labour in 1994.
According to the national service proclamation, every Eritrean citizen between the ages of 18 to 40 years, regardless of sex, was required to serve in the 18 months long national service program without payments. Participants of the national service are obliged to execute any tasks the government assigns them. Activities included both economic and military works. Under the pretext of war the 18 months limit was extended to unknown period. Also it was quietly extended to include older age groups and children. Children as young as 12 years and the elderly people as old as 60 year are being recruited in the national service programme.
When the peace agreement that ended the hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea was signed and the Ethiopia-Eritrea border commission gave its verdict on the disputed border between the two countries in 2002, president Isaiias Afwerki declared the open ended ‘Warsay-Yikealo development programme. The Warsay-Yikealo Development programme is a development program designed to exploit forced free labour and enforce the militarization of every aspect of life including the economy and education.
Strategies were designed to effectively lock up the whole population in the forced free labour and put the economy under the absolute monopoly of the ruling party and military. To enforce this, the forced free labour policy, all the productive human resources were put under the control, ownership and administration of the ministry of defense. No individual has control and choice on his/her fate. He or she is the property of the government /ministry of defense. All government and party institutions and companies use forced free labour assigned to them by the ministry of defense. It is the ministry of defense’s responsibility to assign people to the various sectors and ministries.
In a move to grant absolute monopoly to the party and military enterprises, private investors or businesses were denied hard currency and restricted to import goods. Private construction companies and contractors were banned and many engineers and contractors detained.
On top of the already existing construction companies owned by the ruling party – Peoples’ Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) – others were established mainly under the military establishment. Investment by the military using forced free labour has intensified and expanded since 2002.
The use of free forced labour is not limited to the national service recruits or human resources who are under the control of the ministry of defense but includes students, underage, women the elderly and all the hundreds of thousands of prisoners, including families of national service evaders. Irrespective of their age, junior and high school students have been forced to work for free every summer for 45 days under the summer campaign programme. Their activities mainly focus on afforestation and reforestation programmes but there are also many instances where students are forced to work on private agricultural farms. Furthermore, occasionally during peak agricultural activities, students are being made to suspend their classes to work in agricultural farms or military farms. There are also many instances where the elderly and women have been forced to work on the military farms such as weeding and crop harvesting.
As it is the case with the students, members of the armed forces are being forced to work on private agricultural farms and other sectors. For the labour the national service recruits and students work on private enterprises, the private enterprises are obliged to pay the government for the labour they use. Actually it is the government renting out the huge labour force to private enterprises and collects the benefits/profits. But the most awful thing is to see the military officers exploit forced free labour for their own advantage such building private houses and other economic activities.
Generally the exploitation of the Eritrean population has many facets. Eritreans living in exile are levied 2% of their income, farmers’ harvests are being confiscated by the regime, families are being fined huge amount of money for family members who evaded national service or out migrated. The 2% tax is even enforced on the social welfare subsistence money provided by foreign governments to exiled Eritrean nationals. Furthermore, the Eritrean regime is involved in human trafficking of Eritrean nationals to the Sinai desert where they become victims of torture, rape, organ harvesting, killing or they pay a ransom amounting between $30,000- 50,000. This has been confirmed by the Eritrea-Somalia monitoring group July 2012. According to the Eritrea–Somalia July 2012 report, Eritrea gets about $10 million dollar from human trafficking and illegal weapons and ammunition trade to the Gaza in Palestine.
Hence when international companies make their decisions to invest in Eritrea; it is to be viewed within this context and conditions. It means when the profit driven international companies make their investment decisions in Eritrea, it shows that they are ready and willing to become part of the exploitative system in the country for economic gain. Because the mining sector has proved to be the most profitable in Eritrea, many companies are rushing to grab their lion’s share no matter under what conditions as long as it is profitable to them. Among them is the Canadian mining Company, Nevsun resources.
Nevsun resources have started gold production in 2011. In 2011 alone it collected a revenue of $614 million. As the report has underscored, the complicity of Nevsun Resources in the use of forced labour is through the subcontracts it has made with the PFDJ owned Segen Construction Company. As the bulk of the labour force Segen uses is mainly comprised of national service recruits, Nevsun resources is involved in the use and abuse of the national service recruits. Besides, most of Segen workers who fall under the paid category have been assigned to the company by force against their free will and get little money which cannot even cover their subsistence.
As evidenced by the HRW report the national service recruits live in terrible conditions ‘from inadequate food supplies to unsafe housing.’ Thus Human Rights watch tells international firms operating in Eritrea either to conduct due human rights diligence prior to developing projects in Eritrea or risk being complicit in the use and abuse forced labour. HRW recommends international firms not to invest in Eritrea unless they get guarantees from the Eritrean government and put safeguard measures in place to protect them from falling into the trap of the use of forced labour.
Will international companies heed to the HRW recommendations or continue to exploit the Eritrean population in exchange for their business profits? But one thing the foreign investors should remember is that the Eritrean government is now under the world focus for its grave human rights violations. Already the UN Human rights council has appointed a Human Rights Rapportuer last year to study and document the human rights violations in Eritrea. This means these companies will also come under the scrutiny of the human rights rapportuer for their involvement in the human rights violations.