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Thousands of workers at multinational mining companies in Congo, including Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines Ltd., were confined to their mine site for more than two months under the threat of losing their jobs if they left the site, human-rights groups say.

Ivanhoe denies the allegation, which was made this week in a letter by a group of 11 international and local human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Ivanhoe says its workers were permitted to leave the pandemic lockdown and self-quarantine at home if they chose.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the world’s top producer of cobalt and Africa’s biggest producer of copper. Many cobalt and copper mining companies announced a lockdown of their mine sites in March because of the novel coronavirus, which has infected at least 4,515 people and killed 98 in the Central African country.

Ivanhoe and its joint venture partner, Chinese company Zijin Mining, are developing the Kamoa-Kakula project in Congo, described as one of the world’s biggest copper deposits. It says the project has “continued uninterrupted” since March because of a strict lockdown in which “all key personnel are on site.” More than 3,500 employees and contractors are working there.

In the letter to 13 mining companies in the country, the human-rights groups said they were troubled by the lockdown policies at some mine sites, where Congolese workers were “not given a choice” about the 24-hour confinement “without fear of losing their jobs or other forms of reprisal.”

In a separate media statement, the groups said the lockdown policies were a violation of the workers’ rights. “Workers and union representatives reported that in many cases workers were given no choice and were informed by managers to either stay and work – confined on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week – or lose their jobs,” the statement said.

“On at least six mining sites, workers have been confined for over two months.”

At some of the sites, but not at Kamoa-Kakula, workers also said they received “inadequate food and water rations” and were subjected to overcrowded accommodations and unsanitary toilet and washing facilities, the human-rights groups said. Most of the companies cited in the letter are owned by Chinese or Congolese investors.

Ivanhoe spokesman Matthew Keevil, responding to questions from The Globe and Mail, said the lockdown rules at the mine site were agreed to by the unions. All workers who were quarantined were given an additional allowance, he said in an e-mail Friday.

“If employees choose to self-quarantine off site, we do not terminate employment,” Mr. Keevil said.

He said the company took “exceptional steps to protect the health and well-being of its employees, contractors and local communities,” adding that everything was done in consultation with unions, local governments and stakeholders and followed World Health Organization guidelines.

There have been no recorded cases of COVID-19 in the province where the mine is located, and workers are now permitted to go on rotational breaks, he said.

In an earlier news release, Ivanhoe said the mine responded to the pandemic by creating 10 intensive-care units with ventilators, along with 20 high-care units and a quarantine facility for as many as 60 people.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, executive director of British-based Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), one of the human-rights groups that signed the letter, said the two-month confinement of workers at Kamoa-Kakula “does not appear to be lawful, necessary or proportional.”

As far as the human-rights groups can determine, “there is no law or regulation in Congo that allows companies to confine employees to their place of employment,” she told The Globe.

Workers were not given a “free or fair choice,” Ms. Woudenberg said. She quoted one worker at Kamoa-Kakula, interviewed by RAID, as saying the company threatened to cut off wages for workers who refused to follow the 24-hour confinement rules, which lasted from March 27 to May 29.

“We felt obligated to stay for fear of losing our jobs,” the worker said.

Because so many workers were confined to the mine site and unable to protect their families, there was a surge of crime in the local community, Ms. Woudenberg said.

The quarantine allowance was only US$2 a day, and workers were left in uncertainty about the length of the confinement, she said.

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