The organization claims that African Minerals Limited (AML), a United Kingdom-based iron ore firm, is responsible for exploiting its miners while the government failed to monitor the company’s practices.
“The company in 2010 formally leased land from the government for mining, and worked through the relevant paramount chief, a local customary official, to evict hundreds of families, relocating their households to an arid location near the town’s quarry,” stated the report.
Such relocation, however, negatively affected the families involved. Their living standards declined because the flat land they were taken to made it hard to grow crops necessary for alimentation. The access to water has also become an issue, the report argues.
The AML is responsible for other human rights violations such as failing to pay miners for the hours they worked and preventing them from joining unions. The miners also face discrimination of all kinds on a typical workday.
“Sierra Leonean workers for AML and its contractors receive daily a one-hour lunch break during which the African workers are provided food that they uniformly described as inedible,” said HRW. “By contrast, expatriate workers dine in an area that serves higher-quality food and more choices, in what Sierra Leonean workers said was a more sanitary environment.”
On April 16, 2012, the workers organized a strike against the AML abuses in Bumbuna. However, about 200 police officers arrived on the scene and opened fire at them. One person was killed and either others were wounded.
The police also arrested 29 people, in which many of them claimed they were beaten while detained.
“In the aftermath of the clash, Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission conducted a full-blown investigation, wrote a comprehensive report that said the incident resembled a ‘war zone’, and organized public hearings to which it invited key witnesses,” said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at HRW.
According to Peligal, Conteh, an AML worker who witnessed the attack against the strikers, was the only witness brave enough to testify for the commission.
“I spoke as a Sierra Leonean,” Conteh told Peligal the last time they ever saw each other. “The people in this country would suffer if these concerns were not addressed.”
In May 2013, Peligal received a call by one of Conteh’s relatives who claimed he had been involved in a motorcycle accident is now dead.
After contacting people in Sierra Leone, Peligal leared that Conteh’s body was found in a swamp. Apparently, his body looked more like it has been beaten and robbed than destroyed in a motorcycle collision.
“His skull was fractured. His pants were torn. His phone was missing. His bike was not seriously damaged,” said Peligal.
The true cause of Conteh’s death remains a mystery despite the police classifying it as an accident. Conteh’s case is the reason many people are afraid to speak out against the abuses committed by AML in the first place.
“Sierra Leone has a reputation for being open and democratic, but it seemed that the only people who felt comfortable commenting on the (HRW) report at the symposium were government and corporate officials,” said Peligal. “I don’t blame people for not publicly airing views critical of the authorities, given the potential for arrest or worse.”
In the meantime, however, the AML continues to operate and has probably committed more violations against its workers since the release of the HRW report.