Last week saw a sensational headline in Canadian Business
The slaves of Eritrea: Canadian mining company Nevsun has
been accused of using forced labour to build a mine in Eritrea.
How could something like that happen in the modern business
world? The news wasn’t so much the allegations, now a
couple of years old, that contractors at Nevsun Resources’
Bisha gold-copper mine in Eritrea had used forced labour, under
inhumane conditions. It was that the Canadian government’s
response to those allegations, exposed through an Access to
Information request, was to worry about the company’s public
reputation – not any actual abuse of workers.
But a larger issue lurks undiscussed in the background. What
are the ethics of doing business in Eritrea? The accusations of
using forced labour originate with Nevsun being forced to
contract government and military businesses, and the company
has worked to isolate itself from their labour practices. But
at the same time, Nevsun’s operations are contributing to the
well-being of a regime classified by many observers as one of
the world’s most repressive.
The Eritrean government may well be using the revenue from the
mine to build much-needed infrastructure and services, but what
assurance is there that it is not also going to buy weapons?
Various agencies, including Amnesty International, have found
Eritrea to be one of the most repressive countries in the
world, with a long list of violations including thousands of
people subject to arbitrary, cruel, and indefinite detentions.
Eritrea has also been subject to a UN Security Council-imposed
arms embargo (UNSC Resolution 1907) since 2009, principally on
account of its support for Islamist guerrilla group al Shabaab,
though it doesn’t affect foreign investment. The UN found that
by 2012 Eritrea had stopped direct support for the militants
but continued to channel support through proxies in the region,
and that sanctions should not be lifted.
Short of full economic sanctions, Canada has no legal mechanism
to control investment by Canadian companies, even in cases as
egregious as this. Elizabeth Chyrum of Human Rights Concern
testified to the Human Rights Subcommittee of the House of
Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International
Development in February, 2012, about the use of Army conscripts
and the mistreatment of workers by Eritrean government
construction company Segen under contract to Nevsun.
Nevsun was clearly aware of the possibility of abuse; it has
been producing glossy Corporate
Social Responsibility reports since 2011 supposedly
addressing the potential for such violations. Despite this, CEO
Cliff Davis told iPolitics in November, 2012: “I’m certainly
not directly aware (of human rights violations) at all.” Davis
was in Ottawa to
testify before the same parliamentary committee; it is
still a mystery why he appeared before the committee when he
had little of substance to present, and who on the committee
invited him six months after Chyrum’s disturbing testimony.
An investigation by
Human Rights Watch, published soon afterwards in January
2013, supported these allegations, finding that Nevsun
“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 labor concerning a state-owned contractor it uses.”
In this context, the revelations by Canadian Business are
especially damning of the Canadian government. Their only
response to the Canadian public? That Corporate Canada
“leads the world in responsible mining practices.” Nevsun’s
defence is that (a) it is doing nothing illegal, and (b) it is
providing benefits to Eritreans by providing jobs and revenue.
Neither the company, nor, it seems, the Canadian government has
any ethical qualms about supporting the Eritrean regime, even
in the absence of any guarantees that such support isn’t going
directly or indirectly to support a group Canada
lists as a terrorist entity — or being used to repress
the country’s own people.