Eritrean workers can now sue a Canadian mining company for using them as ‘slave labor’

The Bisha mine in Eritrea
The Bisha mine in Eritrea
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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A Canadian court has cleared the way for a labor lawsuit against Nevsun Resources by workers who claim they were forced to work for the company’s Bisha mine in Eritrea. The British Columbia court’s ruling on Thursday (Oct. 6) rejected efforts by the Vancouver-based mining company to get the case heard in Eritrea and not in Canada.

The case marks the first time in history a tort claim for modern slavery will go forward in a Canadian court, according to the Canadian Center for International Justice, whose legal director is a member of the plaintiff’s legal team. The center also said that this would be the first time a Canadian court has recognized a corporation can be taken to trial for alleged violations in overseas operations.

The Eritrean workers are seeking compensation for “severe physical and mental pain and suffering” while working at the Bisha Mining Share Company between 2008 and 2012. Bisha is Eritrea’s first modern mine, and Nevsun, which owns 60% of the company, engaged a state-run contractor to build and manage the facilities. The men allege in their Nov. 2014 lawsuit that they were conscripts in the country’s controversial national service program when they were employed to work under harsh conditions at the mine.

Nevsun denies the allegations and says the mine is run according to international safety standards. In a press statement on Thursday, the company said it was studying the court’s decision and considering an appeal.

“Today’s court decision addresses only preliminary legal challenges to the action raised by Nevsun,” the company said. “The judgment makes no findings with respect to the plaintiffs’ allegations, including whether any of them were in fact at the Bisha Mine.”

The judged however granted Nevsun an application that the case couldn’t go on as a class action, and that each one of the workers will have to file separate lawsuits. The judge noted that this was because the six workers named in the case made slightly different allegations.

Despite that, the plaintiffs’ legal team said they considered the ruling a historic win for victims of forced labor. “This is a big win for us,” Joe Fiorante, one of the lead counsel for the workers, said.