By Daniel Tseghay
They worked 12 hours a day, with no more than an hour break under an unrelenting sun, for six days a week. When one worker left the work site without authorization he was imprisoned for four months. Working for the equivalent of $30 a month, they were rewarded with inadequate food and the housing.
“They had only lentils to eat, no proper clothes, no security equipment,” said a former worker interviewed for the United Nations report, Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, published in June. The conditions left many of the workers riddled with health problems.
And, perhaps worse, this was all forced labour.
“They did not apply for the job,” says Elsa Chyrum, an Eritrean human rights activist in an interview for a CBC Fifth Estate episode that aired in February, entitled “Dealing with a Dictator.”
“If they refused they would be killed, tortured, or detained indefinitely.”
Eritrea, a small northeastern African nation with a population of under six million, is home to a growing population of enslaved workers. The country established a National Service program in 1995 requiring adults to undergo 18 months of military training, but that quickly transformed into indefinite conscription, often lasting for years, and sometimes for over 10 and even 20 years.
Conscripts, furthermore, are rarely engaged in duties related to the military. Often, they serve as labourers for state-run industries. They might work in agriculture, construction, education, or in the civil service. They rarely know where they’ll work or when their term will end.
Most conscripts only see their family once for twice a year with few opportunities for communication between visits. Access to healthcare is limited, torture is common, and wages are too low to support their families.
Those still of secondary school age often drop out to provide for their ruptured families.
“I was seven years in the military, but it was impossible to live,” says Aklilu in an interview with the authors of the Amnesty International report Just Deserters: Why Indefinite National Service in Eritrea, published in December.
“I have my mother, my three children and my wife all dependent on me, and I could not afford to feed any of them,” says Aklilu.
Nevsun Resources, a Vancouver-based company, owns the mining site in Eritrea. There are allegations that hundreds of military conscripts, essentially enslaved labourers, worked for Nevsun through its subcontractor, Segen Construction.
In 2010 alone, roughly a third, or 440 conscripts, worked at the site. In November of 2014, three Eritrean refugees filed a civil suit against the company in the BC Supreme Court for their mistreatment. What happens throughout the country to conscripts evidently happens on that site as well.
Consequently, current conscripts and teens expecting to be conscripted are leaving the country in droves. Roughly 5,000 people leave every month, the third largest group of people crossing the Mediterranean today – a remarkable fact considering the country’s size.
Most will simply walk over the border into Ethiopia or Sudan, where they risk getting shot by border guards. They might then stay in refugee camps, sometimes for years, or immediately hire a smuggler to take them across the desert towards the Mediterranean.
Paying thousands of dollars upfront, they’re often packed into overflowing pickup trucks, with many dying of dehydration amidst temperatures rising to 60 degrees Celsius.
“In the hottest part of the desert, an adult sitting in the shade loses up to one litre of water an hour, and significantly more when moving.”
“He or she experiences dizziness, nausea and muscle cramps, and the skin turns purplish,” writes Jan Claudius Völkel in openDemocracy.
When someone has had fluid loss reaching 10 percent of their body weight, “disorientation sets in. At that stage, people are prepared to drink anything: blood, urine, engine coolant or battery acid. In the Sahara, a person can easily die of thirst in a single day.”
Surviving that, many are held for ransom on top of their initial payment. Relatives in Canada, the United States, and Europe often receive unexpected calls from panicked voices saying they need tens of thousands of dollars immediately.
Between 5,000 and 10,000 refugees, most from Eritrea, have been killed in camps where smugglers torture migrants to extract a ransom, the estimated total being around $600-million since 2009.
If they’re not killed, they’re burned, beaten, have melted plastic dripped on them, electrocuted, have their limbs cut off or their organs harvested, and women are frequently raped.
“Some Eritrean women are so desperate to make it to Europe as opposed to staying in a refugee camp,” writes Caitlin L Chandler on the site Africa is a Country. “That they first receive injectable contraception before undertaking dangerous smuggling routes – because they are aware they are likely to be raped.”
If they make it to Libya, the most common sight of departure by boat, they’re often detained again, extorted again, beaten and tortured again, before boarding rickety ships. Many are so weakened by the ordeal that, if the boat sinks, they’re unlikely to summon the strength to stay afloat. Arriving safely, many still come with ulcers and chemical burns from the fuel flooding the lower levels of the boats.
Reaching the shores of Europe, safety and security is still uncertain. Increasingly, Europe is establishing a distinction between legitimate refugees and mere economic migrants. Eritreans, apparently, are in the second category.
There is no war, narrowly defined, in the country. Only economic devastation. But that isn’t enough to justify permanent residence. And so many Eritreans are simply deported back to the country they risked everything to escape.
And this raises some new questions. If Eritreans, making up about a majority of migrant deaths in the sea over 2015, are primarily leaving because of labour conditions, and if a Vancouver-based company is directly contributing to that reality, what does this mean for the labour movement in British Columbia?
“People will say we need to take care of our own in Canada. That’s true,” said Andrea Duncan, co-chair of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) international solidarity committee.
“You often hear labour unions say an injury to one is an injury to all – but that doesn’t mean only if you’re Canadian. Labour struggles truly have no borders.”
The committee was established with BCGEU members contributing 20 cents a month into a fund. The committee then makes recommendations to the provincial executive.
The challenges, of course, are formidable. Whether or not an industry explicitly opposes the use of slave labour is one thing – but where it invests in is another.
“People need to watch where they’ve invested,” Duncan says. “All of our direct investments are fossil fuel-free but where we run into issues is the pension. A lot of our member pensions would be managed by the BC Investment Management Corporation which doesn’t pursue divestment strategies.”
That means they might be invested in Nevsun or industries like Nevsun, with members inadvertently contributing to exploitation and devastation abroad.
This isn’t in keeping with the spirit of the labour movement, according to Duncan.
“Everybody deserves to have dignified working conditions that are safe and they get to go home to their families,” Duncan says. “That applies to everybody across the globe. Forget about the borders.”