A Canadian company operating in one of Africa’s poorest countries faces compensation claims from some workers. They say they were military conscripts and suffered harsh conditions.
TORONTO/ASMARA – Bemnet Negash never got to say a proper goodbye to his family. In February 2006, government officials arrived at his school in the highlands of Eritrea and put him and his classmates on a bus to a military training camp. He was 20 years old, and still at school because a childhood illness had interrupted his education.
Bemnet’s father heard what was happening and rushed to the school. “He tried to pass to me my medication and some money through a window of the bus on which I was being taken away, but it was not possible,” said Bemnet in an affidavit filed with a Canadian court last year.
For much of the next five years, Bemnet toiled for the Eritrean national service, a massive conscription program instituted by the country’s autocratic ruler in the mid-1990s. The conscripts become not just soldiers, but an army of cheap labor, forced to work for years for little pay, according to the United Nations. The U.N. has said the program is “similar to slavery in its effects” – a claim the Eritrean government rejects.
Bemnet, who slipped out of Eritrea in 2011, did not work just for the government when he was a conscript: In his legal filing he says he helped build a mine for Nevsun Resources, a Canadian company headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, and listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
His story illustrates the challenges for foreign investors operating in this overlooked part of Africa. The Eritrean government says national service is necessary to protect and build the impoverished country. The risk for foreign companies is that while they may bring jobs and infrastructure, they could become entangled with a state where conscript labor is pervasive.
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