Forced Labour Pool: International Laws and UN CoI On Eritrea

Testimony: “…I did the same work for five years as a soldier in Sawa. They brought you to fields to harvest tomatoes, onions, etc. You were not allowed to eat the vegetables; if you did either they took it from your wage or they imprisoned you. The name of the farm is Afhimbol industry. It is a big plantation, they sold the produce to Italians….Once, we went there for six months to harvest vegetables.”(p. 414, par. 1414)

What CoIE found: It is permissible under international human rights law for some conscripts to perform their national service in military “engineering or similar units” and in such capacity to be assigned to the building of roads and bridges. 1917 However, the Commission documented that entire military units are temporarily seconded or put at the disposal of public companies to perform heavy manual construction work. (p. 410, par. 1405)

These are some of the hundreds testimonies and findings documented in the 483 pages CoIE report on the situation of human rights in Eritrea. It touched almost all political landscapes: vertical and horizontal. It has lots of scientific findings and facts that need to be investigated, researched and expanded for posterity.

Over-all, I am satisfied with the outcome of CoIE findings; it’s an example of much one can document if there is an initiative and dedication. I thank Mr. Mike Smith as Chair of the Commission, Mr Victor Dankwa and Ms. Sheila B. Keetharuth, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human Rights in Eritrea. In addition, I extend my appreciation for those who worked relentlessly to make our voice to be heard.

We know the crimes committed by PFDJ. But knowing and presenting are two different things. Many individuals did on their own initiative and are continuing to do but collectively we failed to establish a strong institution that documents and present to the public like what CoIE did.

Forced Labour in Eritrea

Definition: On page 408 of the CoIE report [1] we read the definition of “Compulsory Labour as:

“Any work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which they said person has not offered him-self voluntarily.”

Based on the above definition, CoIE reported on human situation inside Eritrea in detail; 40 pages (pp. 408-448) are dedicated to presenting the types of  labour force. The report has used two approaches. First, existing labours were categorized into two broad categories and then each category was further divided in sub-sub-categories. The report has presented the magnitude of the violations in relation to the international laws and then briefed life conditions under each category.  It has outlined what has been violated, what not and what base.

CoIE came with the classification of existing forced labour in Eritrea based on the nature of military conscription. Broadly, forced labour has been divided into two: Forced labour in the context of national service and in the context of the People’s army as it is outlined below.

  1. Forced labour in the context of national service
  2. Forced labour in the context o the people’s Army

I will be presenting in the last part of this article what CoIE found. Each finding is supported with testimonies totalling more than 100 testimonies, each exposing the crimes committed and laws violated.

“In Sawa, we were waiting to be deployed to national service; they took us to farms like Molhober. At 5 a.m., they summoned us by whistle. If you did not come, they beat you. We were working in the fields until 6 p.m. We planted onions and weeded. After one month, we harvested tomatoes and green peppers. We even worked on Sunday without any rest. We did that for three months. For two months we worked without resting every day of the week. At long last, they allowed us to rest on Sunday. When I was in Molhober, they did not pay us.”

These testimonies are normal among Eritreans and many of us may not consider them crime. It has been part of our life.

For example, I participated in summer work programme when I was just 15 years old (8th grade[1]). I was assigned to Areza, now Southern region. From my home town, it is about 220 km. I worked there for 45 days and got only 150 Birr (at that time Eritrea was using Ethiopian currentcy). Until I read this document, I never thought that I was recruited as a child labourer, which is against the international laws to protect children.

After this introductory remark, let’s see the world perspective of what slavery is and its relationship to laws and conventions. The background may help us to connect the world perspective and the report’s findings.

A short presentation

In ancient times, before civilization, there was no slavery. It became only a means of development with the emergence of great civilizations. Egyptian Pharaohs were among the main exploiters of forced labour force, the slaves. Many ancient books contain ample references of such horrific acts against humanity: Slave-Master relationship. No single ancient historical book skips mentioning the notion “slave”. The “Holy-Bible” surpasses any of these records. Such experience, in world history, of slavery has a special character; slavery an “evil of civilization” [2], [3].

Though it was a continuous process throughout human history, for the last five centuries, slavery became a cheap means to accumulate wealth. With the expansion of Europeans to the other parts of the world, they not only went on occupying the land but they brought slaves with them. Soon, they started to intensify agricultural and mining activities; an alternative to balance labour demand forced them to look for cheap and easily exploitable labour force. For this, Africans became the primary victims and millions were shipped to the new world, America, and were used like animals. Using slaves became a norm and owning slaves became a pride [3].

Unfortunately the world has failed collectively and specific states excelled by extending the relationship into slave-master relationship. Exploitation became a norm. In ancient times, before civilization. It became only a means with the emergence of great civilizations like that of Egypt.

Before, feudal lords used slaves to increase their agricultural production and later the bourgeois class used slaves in industries with agreed upon but of low wage employments.

Before, slaves stood for their rights. Workers started to unite[2][3].

Those who used the resource accumulated the wealth and those who give their resources unreservedly became poorer and poorer. The exploiters were greedy enough to enslave people.

Eritrea and Modern Slavery

Observing what the PFDJ was doing, it is not hard to categorize it as modern political bourgeois of the horn of Africa. It introduced forced conscription, armed labour groups, nationalized public properties and literally owned all families. Labour market became under its absolute control. Once recruited, NO firing. There are the five fates of Eritrean labour force under PFDJ regime. Four of them are what ILO has described as characteristics of modern slavery. One goes in but never goes out. And this what the CoIE recently reported in a 485 pages report regarding the fate of Eritreans under PFDJ regime: Recruitment, Shuffling, Jailing, killing to get exiled.

How then did CoIE treat these fates in relation to Forced Labour?

From page 408 to 448 of chapter VII, section 2, paragraphs reading from 1398 to 1506. 40 pages with 108 paragraphs out of 485 pages with 1542 paragraphs are devoted mainly to “forced labour.” (rephrase)

In line to the report, I will discuss the main points mentioned, serious allegations, conclusions and recommendations passed concerning the subject matter.

A Glance

Saleh Younis, a distinguished writer, analyst, commentator and Co-founder of  came out with an excellent gist of the report under a title, “Sovereignty, International-law, And The Commission of Inquiry-eritreaa”. It is an excellent summary of the report. The second section of his article, “Systematic, widespread”, is a conclusion of the conclusion of the report. What PFDJ does is systematic and widespread. It has uniformity without discrimination. Children, women, men, youth, old, young, religious leaders, political leaders, soldiers, students, all are subjected to the systematic brutalization of PFDJ regime. Everything done by PFDJ within his system and hence PFDJ system.

[4] Saleh Younis is a master decoder of the Isaiasism philosophy.  However if President Isaias Afewerki has published any book under his authorship, it is only about National Confederation of Eritrean’s Workers (NCEW). He wrote the book not because he is interested on the history of NCEW but to bring the confederation under his complete control through formal book gift. Historically, NCEW is a product of EPLF and later it continued to serve the needs of PFDJ. The president  has constantly abused the labour force by forming a cover association but he was never willing to listen about the worker’s interest [4], [5].

Eritrean Labour Force as the victim of PFDJ system

As the title of this article indicates, my focus will be on CoIE report that focuses on Labour force though I may not present a detailed analysis. But I will try my best to bring certain pages of the report that focus on PFDJ violations concerning labour force.

But first, let me introduce some aspects of slavery and conventions related with International Labour Organizations.

Eritrea and ILO

Many unconsciously skip the notion of slavery as they are kept ignorant with the on-going modern slavery. Not many are aware of modern slavery. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO)[5], around 21 million people, men, women and children around the world live in the form of slavery [6]. This statistical data might send a shock as many of us think that slavery was legally abolished in the 19thC. Nevertheless the reality we live in is not of what the 19thC stated.  Modern slavery has wide form of characteristics today. In general, in today-s definition, one is in slavery if he fulfils the following four minimum requirements: (1) forced to work, (2) owned or controlled by an employer, (3) dehumanized and (4) physically constrained or has restrictions placed on freedom of movements [7]And Eritreans are not exception to this if not the primary victims.

The Stop Slavery campaign[6] has listed different forms of slavery that exist today. These are: Bonded labour, Child slavery, Early and forced marriage, Forced labour,  Descent-based slavery and Trafficking

I will come back to these listed items as they have direct implications with the current Eritrean situation and the main subject that I will talk about.

Eritrea as member of ILO

When Eritrea hosts International symposium of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity[7], and following the events through the only existing news outlet of PFDJ, one can perceive that the role Eritrea plays in the workers movement is marvellous. Nevertheless, what it does and what it should have done is different. The truth about Eritrea under PFDJ regime on labour’s rights is different.

Eritrea became member of ILO in 1993 but the state has failed to ratify all conventions. Out of 189 conventions, 8 are considered as main pillars. Out of these 8, Eritrea has so far ratified 3. According to ILO’s Eritrean profile, conventions ratified  are: Minimum Age convention (2000), Discrimination (Employment and occupation) conventions (2000) and Abolition of Forced Labour convention (2000). Yet conventions on: Freedom of Association and Protection of Rights to Organize, Rights to organize and Collective Bargaining, Forced Labour Convention[8], Worst Forms of Child Labour, Equal Remuneration, Discrihas failed to sign many international conventions. In general, ILO has Eight Pillars “The worst forms of child labour convention”[9] in which Eritrea has not yet ratified it. Out of 185 ILO members, 179 countries ratified such convention. The rest countries are: Cuba, India, Marshall Islands, Palau, and Tuvalu [8].

If out of 189 conventions, Eritrea has so far signed only 3 during the last 22 years (since 1993), it is not hard to understand why slavery exists in Eritrea and why the PFDJ failed to fulfil some basic standards as a registered member of an international organization?

Logical Reasoning

Before going to the main topic, I will try to rationalize things from logical point of view. This is not meant to accept unacceptable reasoning but to help contemplate.

Strong human Resource is a blessing to national development when fair agreement exists. It is human resource that is valued most for any kind of development. Lack of strong human resource and a trained labour force, no matter what policy one designs, is meanngless. Many failed and failing countries are not so because they only designed a wrong policy but also they failed to use the human resource they have and train and mobilize it for an effective end.

Eritrea which came out of long wars is not an exception. The majority of her human resources were trained to be soldiers. Thirty years under Ethiopia has left almost nothing to be used for growth. Instead, after independence, Eritrea was forced to mobilize her warriors to civil services and use them for developments. The early years were of promising start-up. Many freedom fighters were rehabilitated[10]. Economic activities flourished. Young and energetic people started to flock to cities. Labour market was not able to absorb the labour force because the country was not strong enough to finance its expenses. Freedom fighters also started to demand salary.

To help the country spring up, definitive national service could have been accepted for the new and devastated country. But I doubt PFDJ has this kind of thoughts.

PFDJ and its Exploiting Political Program

Since the inception of PFDJ, it ruled with proclamations that enslave the youth. In 1994, summer service was declared and Sawa military training centre opened its door for the 1st round trainees. The entire nation was mobilized. Soon, the regime started cross-border wars: with Sudan and Yemen. Development activities based on conscripted national service persons became a norm. Four years later, an extensive border war broke out leading the country into a fully militarized state. With the end of the war, political unrest emerged, while national development program was launched. During border war, a new term was introduced to the Eritrean society, “Warsay-Yikealo” which established the formal “Slave-Master” relationship. Since then, forced labour became all too common. With its “never-ending” nature, people started to question their rights. Anyone who started to ask or took an action was imprisoned.  Arrest became wide spread and part of Eritrean daily life.

PFDJ’s Eritrea and forced labour: What CoIE has found

(This content is a direct extract of CoIE’s report-more details can be found in the document by itself.)

Types of Forced labour in Eritrea
Forced labour in the context of national service

Some works or services exacted from individuals by the state authorities without amounting to forced labour. . Here, they presented that those in national service, the Eritrean authorities can exact work only for military character; Sending to other areas such as agriculture, industries, public works, transport and handling items, commercial business and likes are not subjected for national service working environment.  In line of interpretation of international laws they state that the government cannot force any of its citizens under the notion of economic developments.

By recalling the main objectives of the national service proclamation No. 82/1994, Eritrean government claims that compulsory labour is authorized under international law, as it falls within the exception of the military law. In line to this, conscripts in the army are obliged to work and contribute to the national developments.

Forced Labour in Construction

By mentioning the closing down of private construction companies through an order (2006), the report stated that the state has monopolized all construction activities. If any foreign company has to hire state owned companies to rely on qausi-free work of conscripts. What the report found is that entire military units are temporarily assigned to public companies as part of their national service.  Very often, they are also sent to construct houses allegedly for the government that are later to be used for rent and housing for foreign companies.

Forced labour at Bisha mine

The Commission found that forced labour occurred at Bisha mine center. Foreign companies were required by the Eritrean Government to hire public companies to carry all of the unskilled labour and basic construction work. As one of public company operating in construction activity, Segen[11] deployed some of her skilled workers to the mining center. Majority of the companies members are conscripts.

The report also found that even some skilled but not in national services were sent to Bisha without being consulted.

On the same site, some workers were used by Segen Company to work underground tunnels which is prohibited under international law.

Forced labour in Agriculture

Forced labour is also common in agricultural sector, often for private interests. Farms are owned by Governments, high ranking military officers or private individuals. Usually, no special skill is required in agriculture.

Forced Labour in specialized fields

Skilled conscripts are assigned in one work place and no change or alternative exists and work on a full-time basis.

Other forms of forced labour exacted from conscripts

While career military personnel may be assigned to tasks of a quasi military nature, it is prohibited to assign national service conscripts as policemen, prison guards, military teachers, trainers and nurses. CoIE found that conscripts are compelled to do such tasks.

Forced labour in civil services

Recalling that only unfit people can work for civil national service, civilian work became a de-facto form of national service that parallels the active military service. This created unregulated working environment.

Recalling that civilian positions can be granted under especial privilege under the international law for conscientious objectors based freedom of thought, conscience and religion, CoIE found that civil service is not offered based on such conditions. Rather conscripts are found to be working in a wide range of civilian assignments.

The commission also found there is no clear assignment procedure, irrespective of their field of study; many conscripts are assigned as teachers under the ministry of education, and some work in their field of study within the public administration, including the office of the President, ministries and public companies.

Artists and athletes are also obliged to perform national service, usually in their areas of expertise.

Working Conditions

The commission stated that “the length and the condition of the work for conscripts, including wages, working hours, place of assignments, leave time and rest days do not per se constitute elements of forced labour. But the open-ended nature of national service and the often harsh working condition and living condition of conscripts subjected to forced labour have a significant impact on their enjoyment of some rights, including safe and healthy working conditions, the right to security, integrity of the person, and the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health.

The working conditions of conscripts assigned to perform non- military work within the military units, such as military nurses and teachers, are usually similar to the conditions of conscripts performing military tasks. Not enough information was documented on the life working condition of those assigned to the police force.

Working conditions in development oriented forced labour

The life condition of conscripts assigned to the agriculture sector is harsh, similar to that of the army. Many of them work long hours, sometimes up to 10-12 hours per day in extremely difficult working condition. No regular rest days. Family visit is scarce; usually work is intensive, manual and unskilled labour work.

No adequate food and safe drinking water is available and salaries are 150 – 500 Nakfa per month. No extra benefits even when it is for the benefit of private interests. The payment they get hardly cover their food needs. Many look for opportunities to get extra money. Some get work on the side.

Working condition in Bisha mine

The commission found abusive and bad working conditions in Bisha and “free” employees used by Segen Construction to build the Bisha mine between 2008 and 2011. The commission also found a drastic difference in treatment on the same site between Segen workers, in particular the conscripts, and the employees of the private foreign companies.

While those who work for private companies were treated at international standards with modern and comfortable houses, Segen workers didn’t benefit the same kind of treatment. Long working hours including night shifts were common among the conscripts.

General conditions in civil service

The commission found that the general condition of these conscripts is quite different. Graduate students are subjected to two phases of national services: civil (university) and national service. University service lasts for one year with a payment of 450 Nakfa and the National service (may vary from six to a few years of service)  get paid 150 Nakfa.

After finishing these two phases of services, conscripts enter the “mobilisation phase” which is open ended. They continue the job they had in service but are paid slightly higher (450-700 Nakfa) per month. After six to eight years of mobilisation, conscripts may ask for release, the demobilisation process may take up to six months.

Civil service condition is perceived to be far better than in the army as there is a regular office working hour and outside office working hours their time is free  and for most with weekend off. Though relatively free, as same as those in the army, they have restriction on movement with limited travel permits. They are not provided with any food and accommodations by the Government hence face severe financial difficulties. They are not allowed to work part-time work jobs.

Punishments during forced labour

A punishment that amounts to torture is frequent in connection to labour exacted from them.

Those in the civil service they are not subjected to such kind of torture directly. For first months of absenteeism, salaries are withheld. Depending on the tolerance of their respective supervisors if missing from work extends to several months they are sometimes sent to prison before resuming work. Other form of punishments is to transfer or threaten with a transfer to a military unit.

Forced labour in the context of the People’s Army

The Commission found that conscription in the People’s Army started in 2012. Everyone who is not serving in the army is potential recruit for the People’s Army. People who have been releases from national service due to health problems or their age are obliged to join. Although several witnesses noted about women’s exemption from joining the People’s Army, some testimonies also are noted about having women having had to join. The conscripts undertake various duties such as guarding public sites and working on development projects. The Commission did not find any official Government document that would outline such policy.

Recruitment is done by an announcement during a public meeting at the local level, or through written communication to the individual.

Military training is given prior to their assignments which can be a onetime event stretching over a few weeks or continuous training at regular intervals. Others have not been trained at all.

Everyone who joins the army is given a gun with two magazines containing 30 bullets generally handed over during the military training.

Forced Labour undertaken by members of the People’s Army

Security and police duties are the most frequent tasks assigned to them without remuneration. These tasks are imposed on conscripts in addition to their official works. In addition, they conduct Giffa[12] (round-up) and the search for conscripts who have overstayed their leave or left the service without authorisation.

Additionally, People’s Army duty extends in developmental activities such as soil and water conservation projects.

The Commission found that the work done is not voluntarily but under a threat of penalty. Those who refuse are either forced to join or being sent to prison or through cancellation of their coupons.

Forced labour in the context of development programs.
>Summer (Ma’Etot) Student works

School children in 9th grade and above are mobilised under summer programme established in 1994 by the Ministry of Education. The students are obliged to work during their summer holidays. And most of the 12th grade students in Warsay-Yikealo are obliged to work in agricultural fields during their last year of high school in addition to their military training.

The children’s work is not driven by poverty or aiming at providing support to the family members, as it is usually the case with situations of child labour. It is reported that children are compelled to work under the threat of being denied the right to continue their studies.

In Sawa, students are also compelled to perform agricultural activities in unsuitable living conditions. Such working conditions are a violation of the international law that prohibits child labour.

Communal service programme

The Commission learned that there was a report from the Government of Eritrea to the Committee of Experts of the ILO in 2010 about communal service programmes. In the report, a communal service programme was implemented in Eritrea for 19 years in accordance with the exception provided under the Forced Labour Convention that authorises compulsory labour for minor communal services. It explained that the compulsory work concerned small scale projects of micro-dams, roads and forestation undertaken in consultation with members of the community. However, as noted by the ILO Committee of Experts, no further details were provided on the consultation procedure or the projects or the legal basis for this programme.

The Commission did not gather additional information on this subject through direct testimonies rather than reported materials and from official information provided by Eritrean Ministry of Information.

The Commission remained concerned that such projects could amount to forced labour in violation of human rights law.

Forced labour in detention

Compulsory labour during imprisonment is one of the exceptions authorised under international law, according to which work or service may be exacted from a person as a consequence of convection in a court of law and can be carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority.

What the Commission found is that most of the persons in detention in Eritrea are not convicts. In addition, there is no differential treatment between detainees and prisoners, including prison labour. Non-convicted detainees are regularly compelled to work during their detention, usually during the last stage of their detention. The detainees or prisoners compelled to work during their detention are not paid for their work.

The Commission heard evidence that detainees, like conscripts in the army, are forced to work in “development-oriented” activities such as construction and agriculture.

Other detainees were also working in mining activity in the early 2000s. Those who opposed government policies are also detained and forced to work.


Most of the reports and testimonies were aired through the opposition mass-media. But I found in the document information about child labour. Reading the report, it is not difficult to clearly draw conclusions regarding the patterns of forced labour. Child labour, however, has little attention so far among justice seekers though Eritreans were subjected to it since 1994. In general, there is an age limit imposed by the Eritrean Ministry of Education on students to stay in a specific grade span. Kindergarden starts at four and ends after two years. Each grade is one full year. The average age of a grade 9 student is 15 years and all 9th grade student have to attend it summer program. This policy exposes the child to early labour which is against International law on child labour.

The rest are reports of horrific human right violation and testimonies. I am also a direct victim in most of the listed violations and I felt like I was giving the testimonies to the Commission. I have experienced all the violations. But one thing that I never considered is that I was forced to work as a child labourer.

In conclusion, the report is very detailed and highlights the crimes committed through forced labour. The report will be strong evidence against PFDJ as a ruling regime which has constantly used forced labour in its policies for development programs.

After reading this document and having first-hand experience as a victim, I can confidently say that Eritreans forced labour is considered as “Modern Slavery” as it has all the characteristics to categorise as such.

Direct institutional accountability might be absent in Eritrea. Nevertheless Eritrea’s National Confederation of Workers is partially and directly responsible party for such crimes committed on the working class and children of Eritrea.

Cited works:
[1] H. R. Council, “Report of the detailed findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea,” 2015.
[2] History World, “History World,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed 20 June 2015].
[3] Wikipedia, “,” Wikipedia, [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 2015].
[4] E. MoE. [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 2015].
[5] MoE. [Online]. Available: [Accessed June 2015].
[6] ILO, “ILO home,” [Online]. Available:–en/index.htm.
[7] [Online]. Available: [Accessed 20 June 2015].
[8] Wikipedia. [Online]. Available:
[9] E.-M. o. Information, “,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed june 2015].


[1] Before 2000, summer programme was held right after grade 8 and continuous for the next 2 consecutive academic years.
[2]Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains. Karl Marx


[5] ILO is an International Labour Organization founded in 1919, and became the first specialized agency of the UN in 1946. website:

[6] Anti-Slavery International, founded in 1839, is the world’s oldest international human rights organization and works to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world. Web-site:

[7] Asmara hosted an international symposium of the organization of the African Trade Union Unity from 23 to 24 February 2015.

[8] Forced labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)  – Convention concerning Forced or Compulsary Labour

[9] The convention concerning the prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms Child Labour

[10] Rehabilitation was actually done as should be. Instead of rehabilitating former freedom fighters, they rehabilitate those who joined the struggle late. It is a kind of “Where were you? Now you joined to harvest what we planted”

[11] Leading PFDJ owned construction Company

[12] Giffa is one the terminologies described in the report


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