This 25-year-old Sierra Leonean plumber came to settle in Diamniadio, about forty kilometers from Dakar, attracted by the prospect of working on the construction of one of the largest urban projects in West Africa.

With its headquarters of ministries, international organizations and companies and its sports arenas, the new city supposed to relieve congestion in the capital is the showcase of President Macky Sall's plan to make Senegal an emerging country.

Nine months ago, Mohamed's dreams were shattered when the air conditioner he was installing fell, severing a finger and slashing his thumb.

Reduced, he says he was dismissed without compensation.

Since then, he has survived more than he lives off odd jobs.

AFP spoke to more than a dozen migrants from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria who work at Diamniadio.

All recount a miserable life, endless days for minimum wage and nights in decrepit collective housing, haunted by the fear of injury.

AFP has changed their names to preserve their anonymity.

A general view of a construction site of the large Diamniadio real estate project, in Senegal, which provides for the construction of the new UN headquarters for West Africa, several ministries and a vast sports complex.

Photo taken on November 9, 2022 in Diamniadio, about 40 km from Dakar © JOHN WESSELS / AFP

"They told us that our salary was the price of our soul... In a word, it's slavery," says Alpha, a Guinean steel fitter.

The Chinese company WIETC, at the center of many of the accusations, has denied any abuse and said it strictly follows Senegalese laws.

"Inhuman conditions"

The new UN office in Senegal is a spectacular 60,000 square meter structure shaped like a swirling star.

With a large sports complex, the Dakar Diamniadio Sports City, it is one of the flagship constructions of the new city where, since the launch ten years ago, gigantic construction sites have swallowed up the fertile plain.

The workers building them say they work up to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and are paid the equivalent of around $7 a day.

Or less.

Some workers walk up to three hours a day to and from the massive Diamniadio construction site, one of West Africa's largest urban projects, about 40 km from Dakar.

Photo taken on November 23, 2022 in Diamniadio © JOHN WESSELS / AFP

The Senegalese labor code provides for one day of rest per week.

The minimum wage for low-skilled construction workers varies between 378 FCFA (0.56 euro) and 658 FCFA (0.98 euro) per hour.

"These are obviously inhuman conditions," said Seydi Gassama, head of Amnesty International in Senegal.

"All workers must be able to work and have days off, whether they are Senegalese or international."

Some claim to walk more than three hours a day to and from work.

Their accommodation, "cabins" provided by the company, were one day demolished by the gendarmes.

All the workers met by AFP declared that they had not signed any contract.

Bakary, another Sierra Leonean met at the end of 2022, had injured himself the day before.

He had visible head injuries.

He says he was sent home without pay.

His superiors did not take him to the doctor, and left him the choice: either he comes back the next day or he is fired.

"They are very bad and shout and insult the workers. Even if you are exhausted, they force you to do it (work)", also assures Alpha.

Others say they were beaten.

"Every day they shout, shout, hit you, mistreat you," says Ibrahim, a 26-year-old worker.

If a worker hits a boss back, "you get fired. So when he hits, you just have to swallow, endure, and get back to work."

labor laws

In a written response to AFP, the managing director of WIETC for West Africa, the Chinese company contracted to build the two complexes, objected that it fully complied with the legislation.

Lunch break on one of the sites of the huge urban project of Diamniadio, about 40 km from Dakar, which employs many migrants from West Africa.

Photo taken on November 16, 2022 in Diamniadio © JOHN WESSELS / AFP

All employees have been declared to Senegalese social security, and all those injured have been covered for medical treatment and paid until they recover, He Shenjian said.

He said evening and weekend work was "exceptional" and only took place when workers "freely consented".

Madani Tall, the owner of the two sites, says he has not been informed of any mistreatment so far.

The workers are day laborers, he said, although they all told AFP they were paid monthly.

"Senegalese law does not require a contract for a day laborer," he says.

Having traveling day laborers, he adds, “is something that is not particular to Senegal, it is what you have on all construction sites”, including in the United States and Europe.

Solicited by AFP, the Senegalese law firm Geni & Kebe recalls that Senegalese law requires the employer to produce a written document when hiring day laborers and that failing that, the latter must be considered as workers with 'a permanent contract.

Precariousness is widespread in Senegal.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 9 out of 10 workers are in informal employment.

A donkey walks in a deserted avenue lined with buildings recently built as part of the huge urban project of Diamniadio, about 40 km from Dakar in Senegal.

Photo taken on November 8, 2022 in Diamniadio © JOHN WESSELS / AFP


Tall and He Shenjian confirmed that there were two deaths at the UN site, one related to an epileptic seizure and the other due to an accident.

The United Nations Resident Coordinator for Senegal did not respond to multiple requests from AFP.

The government authorities in charge of Diamniadio said it was not their responsibility.


Foreign workers say they send up to half of their earnings to their families back home.

A man on a bicycle passes in front of a poster promoting a real estate project in Diamniadio, about 40 km from Dakar in Senegal.

Photo taken on November 9, 2022 in Diamniadio © JOHN WESSELS / AFP

Mohamed, the plumber, wanted to study business administration but left high school when his father died.

He can no longer provide for his farming mother and three sisters.

He would like to go to the police.

But, as an English-speaking foreigner, without a document proving his accident, he fears to aggravate his case and never find a job again.

"If I go back, I have nothing. It would be a great shame for me," he explains.

"Some of my friends got married, some settled down... I don't even have a girlfriend."

© 2023 AFP