Sierra Leone: "Sierra Leone Should Change Its Labor Laws" - Peligal

interview

The rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) is claiming that the government of Sierra Leone and a mining company have undermined villagers' access to food and prevented workers from challenging abusive practices.

HRW says it researched the company's operations over an 18 month period, documenting its findings in a report. DW spoke to its author.

Tell us in more detail about your accusations against the government and the mining company

Rona Peligal: The report looks at the operations of a company called African Minerals Limited, which is operating in Sierra Leone's Tonkolili District in its northern province. African Minerals Limited, which is a London-based firm, is the largest single employer in Sierra Leone. It has employed over 6,000 people, approximately 80 percent of whom are Sierra Leonean nationals. So the company indeed is contributing to employment in Sierra Leone and that is a good thing. At the same time, however, the company has contributed to a human rights environment in Sierra Leone where there have been some problems and what the report tries to do is make suggestions as to how it can grow quickly and economically while protecting the rights of the people who should be benefiting most from development.

Which human rights abuses are you referring to?

There were a couple of things the report focused on. First there were hundreds and hundreds of families moved away from their homes to make way for the mine. The place where they used to live was very lush and they had water and they could grow their own food and although they weren't rich, they could survive. They could pan for gold and sell the gold in town - the women did this to pay for their children's education. Now they have moved - they are now living in a very arid area next to the quarry, next to the railway line. They cannot farm, they have no land to farm - they were told that they would have (farm land).

They don't have piped water, or potable water, they water is brought in by tanks and sometimes gets delayed. They are buildings, there's a market and there's a mosque and there is a school, but they're empty. And so the people were told, you know, you should move, this is going to be very good for you and the people felt that they could not object and then found themselves in a worse condition.

The second group of people most affected by this have been the workers themselves at AML. I think what most rankled the workers was that they could not form a union of their own choosing. The government said there was a union that had applied to represent them and the government said it was illegal! The workers were so frustrated by this. I think the government wanted to protect the standing union that was probably more conservative than the new union would have been. And then that led the workers to strike.

The third area of abuses I look at is excessive use of force by the police to put down the strike, which was largely peaceful. The police stormed the town, killing one woman, who was an AML employee, in fact, but was taking part in a peace march to help quell the violence

These are serious allegations. What evidence do you have to back them up?

The report is based on interviews with approximately 100 different people, sometimes interviewed multiple times, corroborated by written sources, reports from the government, reports from the media, reports from investors, and reports from development donors and so on. The report is couched in national and international law and I should note that the interviews are based not only on the experiences of the workers - I talked to workers, people relocated, town residents, but I also talked to members of the government and I talked to the CEO of the company, the former CEO, and so what the report puts together is a composite picture of what is happening in this part of Sierra Leone

What are you calling for?

We are calling for the immediate relief for the people who were relocated, who are now starving, we are calling for Sierra Leone to change its labor laws to allow the new union to operate and to allow multiple unions within the same industry. We are also calling for Sierra Leone to bolster its labor regulations and resources for the ministry of labor and even for the police to be properly trained in how to manage crowds.

How you had any reaction to your report since it was published a few days ago?

We had a lot of reactions actually, because what I did was cooperate with the Open Governance Initiative in Freetown which is part of the government, out of the president's office, to hold a symposium involving many different parties - the government, the company, journalists and civil society, to have a frank productive and open conversation about the way forward, about the findings, about what we could do together to address them. At the symposium the government and company reacted quite negatively and strongly and hostilely. I suspect that in that context the civil society and media were afraid to speak out.

Rona Peligal is deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch

Interviewer: Asumpta Lattus

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