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The Eritrean government used forced labor to construct a gold mine it jointly owns with a Canadian company worth billions of dollars, an international human rights group said Tuesday.
The workers were transported to and from work in flat-bed trucks and were forced to work 12-hour-days, with a limited one hour midday break, Human Rights Watch said. They had Sundays off and were paid about $30 a month, the group's report said.
The laborers were forbidden to leave the mines without authorization and those who tried to leave were severely punished or in some cases imprisoned, the group said. Human Rights Watch said it interviewed workers who said they were poorly fed and said they had no access to latrines.
Eritrea, which sits in East Africa on the coast above Ethiopia, is sanctioned by the United Nations because of human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch said that when Canadian company Nevsun Resources started building the Bisha mine in 2008 in Eritrea it failed to conduct a due diligence survey on human rights and had limited human rights safeguards in place.
The Bisha mine is located about 93 miles west of Asmara, Eritrea's capital. The project is majority owned and wholly operated by Nevsun, while the Eritrean government holds a 40 percent stake in the project through its mining company, ENAMCO.
Nevsun subcontracted the Segen Construction Company as a local contractor to build roads, staff housing, and other secondary infrastructure at Bisha. Segen Construction Company is owned by Eritrea's ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice and there is evidence that it regularly exploits conscript workers assigned to it by the government, the report said.
According to the rights group a large proportion of Segen's workers came from the country's national service program. The program requires all able bodied Eritreans to spend 18 months performing national services, which are usually military duties. The government, however, has forced many Eritreans to serve for an indefinite period of time, the group said.
"National service conscripts are often subjected to torture and other abusive forms of discipline. Many are forced to endure unhealthy living conditions and paltry remuneration that equates to just a few U.S. dollars per month. Conscripts who attempt to escape their service face imprisonment, torture, and other forms of human rights abuse. Their family members also face harassment and reprisal, "the report said.
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed four former workers from the Bisha mine, two of whom were from the national service program and were forced to work at various stages of mine's initial development. One said that he was imprisoned for four months when he defied orders not to attend a grandparent's funeral.
Human Rights Watch said that when the Canadian firm Nevsun was questioned about the issue of forced labor at the mine, it appeared not to know for certain whether forced workers had been used. The firm told the rights groups that its efforts to investigate the allegations have been obstructed by their local contractor Segen, the report said.
The rights group cautioned international companies that want to explore Eritrea's untapped mineral reserves to be careful not to get embroiled in human rights abuses.
"International mining firms operating in the country face intense government pressure to engage these contractors to develop some of their project infrastructure," the report said.
Bisha produced 379,000 ounces of gold in 2011 and was expected to produce up to 300,000 ounces in 2012. The mine's 2011 production was worth $614 million. The mine is expected to transition from gold to copper and zinc production in early 2013. In July 2012 Nevsun estimated that Bisha held total copper reserves of over >1 billion ($1.6 billion) and zinc reserves of roughly > 2.7 billion ($4.4 billion), the report said.