If Sierra Leone is known for one thing in the West, it’s the brutal depictions of the diamond industry in the film”Blood Diamond.” We watched workers face death and amputation while surviving in unlivable conditions. The film caused major uproar in the diamond industry. But what if you found out similar conditions were still at work within the country, in regards to both diamonds and iron ore?
A new Human Rights Watch report has come out detailing the abuses of mining industries within Sierra Leone. Questions have been raised about a number of foreign companies that, while not chopping off any limbs, are still exposing their workers to the threat of death, with unsafe working conditions.
Koidu Holdings Limited, operated by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz’s Octea Diamond Group, has been accused of providing poor working conditions, racist treatment and inhibiting local unionization. In 2012, a strike in Kono District led to two people being killed in police skirmishes. Steinmetz is now being investigated in neighboring Guinea over iron ore mining.
Addax, a Swiss firm that deals in sugarcane, has displaced a number of people who protested both poor working conditions and food security.
In the town of Bumbuna, where mining expeditions discovered an immense amount of iron ore, the quality of life has steadily decreased. African Minerals Limited (AML) is a London-based company that settled in the Bambuna area in 2006.
Although this area was already inhabited by villagers, this mattered little to the mining company, who promptly went about removing them. Villagers were promised new homes, with water pipes, plenty of food and access to education. Instead, villages have been placed on arid lands with little access to water, sustenance or education for their children. On their old land, food and water were plentiful, “Before, we ate three or more meals per day. Now it’s one,” said a village elder. “We have to buy things now that we used to get for free.”
The displaced people only added to the overall feelings of discontent. The workers in the mines, 80 percent of whom are from Sierra Leone, found themselves increasingly at odds with AML. One worker described the situation in the mining canteens, “The chicken is … boiled and undercooked with the blood still visible. There are flies in the food. The expats and locals eat separately, and the locals are not permitted to eat in the expat dining room… There is only one meal…for the African workers, with no other opportunities to eat in a day that starts at 3 a.m. and doesn’t end until 9 p.m. sometimes.” Other instances include giving expat workers bottled water, while local workers have been forced to drink out of streams, which are laden with bacteria, including cholera.
Further criticisms of arbitrary termination for being ill have been made. In one documented case, a man who collapsed from heat stroke and dehydration spent the next day resting and recuperating, only to find himself fired as a result. Pay disparities between workers in the same divisions and racist treatment by white bosses, calling the workers ‘bush pigs’ and ‘black monkeys’ has also been noted.
To rectify this, many of the workers banded together in order to unionize. They wrote formal letters to the company to voice their dissatisfaction and asked for clearer rules, fairer treatment and clean food and water supplies on the job.
When AML ignored these pleas for improvement, the discontent came to a head in the form of a strike. Early in the morning, workers lined up outside the depot and blocked the road that let workers in. This is when AML called the police.
The police, who seemed interested in protecting the companies’ interest, rather than the poor treatment of workers, sprayed live ammunition and teargas into the markets and demonstrations nearby. One woman, a 24 year old, who wasn’t part of the protest, was killed when a bullet hit her head. Arbitrary arrests were made, although all were freed the next day without charge. While there were reports by corporate and government officials that protestors were trying to burn down the fuel depot, investigations by HRW saw zero evidence to support this.
Sierra Leone is trying to lift itself up from a brutal and repressive civil war, and foreign investment is a proven way to increase GDP and standards of living throughout the country. However, if these companies are not adhering to the government’s own laws on employment, and the government risks losing money by sanctioning them, then who is really running the country?
Although AML switched up their management following the unrest, in a recent report AML showed an increase in the export of iron ore despite unskilled workers, heavy rainfall and an isolated location. This leads many to wonder if the exploitation of local workers for foreign gain continues in the rural mining districts of Sierra Leone.