Evidence from the UN report
Forced labour at the Bisha mine
- The Commission collected evidence that forced labour occurred in the context of the development and exploitation of the Bisha mine, 150 km west of Asmara, which to date is the only mine in operation in Eritrea. The mine started the extraction of gold in February 2011 and switched to copper extraction in 2012. The Bisha Mining Shareholders Corporation (BMSC), which operates the mine, is 60 per cent owned by the Canadian company, Nevsun, and 40 per cent by the State-owned Eritrean National Mining Corporation (ENAMCO). BMSC hired Senet, a South African company, as a sub-contractor to build the infrastructure needed to start the extraction. Even though BMSC and Senet were able to directly employ foreign workers and some Eritreans who had been released to perform technical and skilled functions, they were required by the Eritrean Government to hire Segen and other Eritrean public companies to carry out all of the unskilled labour and basic construction work.
- Work at the Bisha mine site started in September 2008. Segen was the main Eritrean public company involved in the site work. It sent some skilled workers to Bisha, including engineers, carpenters and safety officers, as well as unskilled manual labourers. Even though Segen tried to conceal their status, the majority of Segen’s “workers” were in fact conscripts performing their national service. Engineers and other skilled staff worked directly for Segen under the civil national service scheme, while the majority of labourers were conscripts whose military units were put at the disposal of Segen by the army. Work assigned to conscripts included building the transport infrastructure to access the site, housing compounds for BMSC and Senet staff a few kilometres away from the mine, and all of the mine infrastructure.
As recounted by a former conscript sent to work at the Bisha mine with his military unit: “In February 2010, we all had to go to Bisha. We did not get any details, we were only told to go to Bisha. I don’t know how many we were, but it was the whole military division. I was part of a team to do construction, we were building houses. They kept us working in the construction site. They would not tell us what we were doing, but sometimes we heard we were building the offices or living or changing quarters. We just guessed what it was for. Most of the superiors came with us. We were under the control of our direct commanding officers; the commanding officer of the brigade gave orders to our superiors. Before we went to Bisha, they briefed us that we were not to reveal our identity as soldiers. We wore civilian clothes and working uniforms. In my company, Segen, there were Eritreans and Indians. In Mereb and Senet, there were different nationalities, including white people, many Eritreans and foreigners. We were not allowed to talk to them. The structure at the mine was hard to understand. They kept it that way deliberately. However, after talking among us, we understood that the agreement between the Segen CEO and our commanders was that Segen would pay 21 USD per day per worker, but we only received 450 Nakfa per month. I think there was an official agreement and an informal agreement. We continued our life, as in the military base, the salary was paid by the officers”.
A former worker at the Bisha mine explained: “The Segen people were doing the harder work and all the heavy duty, including driving big construction trucks, which are Chinese and of bad quality – they often break down or cause accidents and the drivers were injured – but nobody cared. They transported the heavy material, constructed roads, etc… they had only lentils to eat, no proper clothes, no security equipment. If they worked on Sunday, they only had special food and meat as compensation. The Segen workers are all soldiers doing their national service. They were assigned to the Bisha mine on and off, depending on the needs. But they were not required to do the extraction of the gold itself. For the extraction, the Bisha mine had its own workers. Around Bisha, there were several military units surrounding the mine to ensure its safety. On the mining site, some Segen workers had guns and guarded the mine. They were in charge of security.”
- It is reported that even the few skilled Eritrean workers who were employed by Segen outside of the national service scheme – people who were “disabled or otherwise damaged and discharged from national service” were sent to work at Bisha without being consulted. In 2010, as the deadline to begin mine operations in February 2011 approached, hundreds of additional conscripts were reportedly sent to work at the Bisha site. It was also reported that because of the pressure to complete the construction on time, some elders and even former freedom fighters were recalled to work at the Bisha mine under the national service scheme.
A former freedom fighter explained: “All disabled military members were called up for duty to work on a construction site. My right eye was severely injured during fighting in Sudan, and after I returned to Eritrea a rock was thrown at it blinding me permanently. But I was summoned to the site. The construction site I worked on was for a Canadian company.”
- Furthermore, testimonies collected by the Commission showed that some conscripts were used by Segen to construct the underground network of tunnels for future mining operations. Compulsory work in underground mines is totally prohibited under international law and cannot be exacted from anyone in any circumstances.
A former Segen employee, who worked at the Bisha mine but was not a conscript, explained: “I left when the company started to exploit the mine. Until then, we built up the whole structure, the soldiers and us. We built the tunnels to be opened, the tubes to be inserted, we used tunnels as supporting meters, filled them with sand, worked with construction, metal. Everyone was working to create the mining site. … The soldiers also worked underground and dug tunnels etc. The soldiers and we did the hard and harsh work. We had the machinery, and we were taught how to use the machinery, but the work was also done by hand.”
 Some other Eritrean public companies such as Gedem, Enda 74 and Mereb, were also contracted by BMSC to provide various services and perform different kinds of work, but the Commission could not confirm what were the exact distribution of responsibilities between all these public companies and the status of their workers even if it was also alleged that they were using conscripts.