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Liberia: Firestone Challenge Advances

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jan 17, 2008 (080117)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Workers at the Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia have for the first time won representation under a free union vote, throwing out the officials of a company-controlled union. The vote took place in July last year, but it took two court decisions and an unauthorized strike before officials finally agreed to negotiate with the new union and hand over their company-collected union dues. The union recognition is only a first step, however, in changing a system of brutal exploitation of child labor and virtual bondage for the rubber tappers.

The Stop Firestone Campaign, joining Liberian and international non-governmental organizations, is supporting a law suit filed against Firestone by the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of former child laborers and their children. Firestone and the newly-elected leadership of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) met for the first time on January 10, at the initiative of human rights activist Samuel Kofi Woods, who has been Liberian Minister of Labor since February 2006. Wood expressed the hope that the meeting signaled a new willingness to find ways to improve the conditions of workers at the plantation.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a news release from the AFLCIO blog on the Liberian court decision, and a background article written in December by free-lance writer Jamie Menutis.

For earlier AfricaFocus Bulletins on Liberia, see http://www.africafocus.org/country/liberia.php

Among other resources for background information and references

The Stop Firestone Campaign
http://www.stopfirestone.org

"Stopping Firestone: Getting Rubber to Meet the Road"
Foreign Policy in Focus Commentary by Roxanne Lawson and Tim Newman, Dec. 7, 2006
http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3766

"Modern Slavery in Liberia"
Pambazuka News commentary by Robtel Neajai Pailey
Feb. 2, 2006
http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/31756

Pambazuka Podcast: Liberian human rights activists Samuel Kofi Woods, now Minister of Labor, and Ezekiel Pajibo, director of the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), discuss the past and present of Firestone in Liberia, April 26, 2007
http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/podcasts/41098

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Update to AfricaFocus Bulletin on "Talking about 'Tribe'" (http://www.africafocus.org/docs08/ethn0801.php).

Since that Bulletin was written last week, New York Times reporting on Kenya, cited there, has avoided the indiscriminate use of the word tribe in favor of "ethnic group," and has stressed the historical origins and political character of the continued violence in the country as well as its links to ethnic divisions. Thanks to those AfricaFocus readers and others who contacted the New York Times about its coverage.

And many thanks to those of you who have recently sent in a voluntary subscription payment to support AfricaFocus Bulletin. If you haven't yet sent in such a payment and are able to do so, please help AfricaFocus reach more people with reliable information on Africa. Go to http://www.africafocus.org/support.php, and send in a check or pay on-line using Paypal or Google Checkout.

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Liberia's Firestone Rubber Workers Win a Union Voice

Posted By Mike Hall On January 6, 2008 In Corporate Greed, Organizing & Bargaining

AFL-CIO Weblog - http://blog.aflcio.org -

For the first time in 81 years, the more than 4,000 workers at a Bridgestone Firestone-owned rubber plantation in Liberia now are in control of their own union. In late December, the Liberian Supreme Court ruled the July election that threw out the officials of the longtime company-controlled union was a legitimate election.

International election observers, including the United Steelworkers (USW) and the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, certified the election but a small group of officials from the discredited company union challenged the results.

While the case was before the court, Firestone refused to bargain with the union, and on Dec. 6, the workers staged a strike demanding recognition of their union. Austin Nantee, the newly elected president of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), says: "The Firestone workers are jubilant and are steadfast in their commitment. The workers themselves have realized their power and are looking forward to carving out a new collective bargaining agreement with the company."

Says USW President Leo Gerard: "This ruling is a landmark victory for democratic and independent unions and provides Firestone workers with an opportunity to bargain with management to obtain much-needed improvements in wages, health care, safety and educational opportunities. The USW calls on Firestone to accept the results of the election and to begin the process of working with the union to achieve a fair agreement that rewards and respects the work of Liberian rubber workers."

The USW, which represents Bridgestone Firestone workers in the United States, has supported the Liberian workers for the past two years through training programs, workshops and education in partnership with the Solidarity Center.

The USW and the Solidarity Center found horrid living conditions on the plantation. Workers at the plantation earn a little more than $3 a day, and then only if they meet a burdensome quota. Workers are forced to carry heavy loads of rubber in metal pails on their backs and walk for miles to weighing stations. They live in shacks with no electricity, no running water or sanitary bathroom facilities. Their children have no access to a high school education.


Firestone Rubber & Latex Company: Prospering from Child Labor and Enslavement in Liberia

by Jamie Menutis

December 4, 2007

Jamie Menutis is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans and the author of "Where the Natives Feast in New Orleans," She documented human rights abuses against Liberians in West Africa for the US Refugee Resettlement Office/US Department of State in Freetown, Sierra Leone during the 90's. She contributed this article to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/48027

"On the Firestone Plantation, children are forced to walk several miles carrying 70 pound load pails of tapped latex on their shoulders supported by sticks. The heavy loads form blisters on their skin and often result in long term back and neck injuries. Rubber latex causes permanent eye damage and all workers, including children, are not provided with safety materials such as gloves or glasses."

For children and workers at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Harbel, Liberia, West Africa, $3.19 a day means you've fulfilled your day's quota of tapping 650 rubber trees. Workers that fail to "tap" all 650 trees, agree to have their daily wages cut in half to $1.59. This is the reason why Firestone management admits to turning a blind eye when workers bring their children to work aside them as they toil to meet their daily set quota. The work is long and hard and the quotas are unreasonable. But according to Dan MacDonald, director of media relations for Bridgestone-Firestone, "Most tappers work seven to eight hour day," and "The daily quota is enough for a living wage." Additionally, Firestone's Company President, Mr. Dan Adomitis says, "Each tapper will tap about 650 trees a day where they spend perhaps a couple of minutes at each tree." Of course, 650 trees, at two minutes per tree, ends up totaling to 1,300 minutes or 21 hours a day of work. Did I forget to mention that each tree must be visited twice? This is where the children come in - the average child can work many long hours on the Plantation and be of great assistance to their parents in meeting those quotas. They must, or else their family won't earn enough to survive.

Firestone operates one of the world's largest rubber plantations and rubber is Liberia's number one export. America is its number one importer, we make tires out of their tapped African rubber, and lots of them. Firestone has operated in Liberia for the past 81 years and not much has changed, except maybe the wages. Back in 1926, Firestone paid its workers 24 cents a day, an amount equal to roughly $9.19 a day in 2004. This rate is calculated on the basis of the unskilled wage rate of comparison. Today, in 2007, tappers earn $3.19 a day, a rate that calculates to a loss of $6.00 against that of their predecessors. In short, tappers are producing more, working harder, and earning less as time goes on.

[Unskilled wage rate calculations taken from article by Carl Patrick Burrowes (http://www.stopfirestone.org/history.htm)]

The magic number of 650 trees per day was stated by Mr. Adomitis on CNN in an interview back in 1995. It was later explained as "A figure of speech" by Firestone Public Relations. But it did not get past the eyes of human rights groups who have long claimed indentured servitude and exploitation of children exists on the Firestone Rubber & Latex Plantation in Liberia. According to a May 2006 report by the United Nations Mission in Liberia, (UNMIL) grave human rights violations exist at the Firestone Plantation in Liberia. Firestone admits that it does not monitor its own policy prohibiting child labor and the report found several factors contributing to the use of children in rubber tapping including pressure to meet unrealistic company quotas, lack of access to basic education and the need to support the family financially.

On the Firestone Plantation, children are forced to walk several miles carrying 70 pound load pails of tapped latex on their shoulders supported by sticks. The heavy loads form blisters on their skin and often result in long term back and neck injuries. Rubber latex causes permanent eye damage and all workers, including children, are not provided with safety materials such as gloves or glasses. Additionally, toxic pesticides are used and applied to the trees and used in the production process. Children apply these pesticides with their bare hands. Blindness is not uncommon with some long term workers on the plantation due to the prolonged exposure. All of these factors pose unacceptable health risks and signal a need for major reform.

In case, you didn't know, extracting rubber from trees is done by crude methods, tappers use sharp knives to cut into the trees to expose the sap. The use of modern tools to help with extracting in a safer manner is not used on the Plantation and both children and adults risk injury in the primitive tapping processes that are applied.

Generations of families have lived and worked at the Firestone Plantation. Until recently, not a single new home was built apart from the original 1926 shacks. The workers merely existed in shambles. Due to recent press about the conditions at the Firestone Plantation, the company has erected some new housing near its main road entrance for all to see. The new houses, however, do not have running water, electricity or latrines. For senior Firestone management though, it is a different story. Managerial staff live on the plantation, but more like plantation masters, their homes surrounded by manicured gardens, with golf course access and all the amenities one would expect masters to have, such as running water, electricity and even a toilet. Many of the American and Asian employees stay in these homes.

Also recent are Firestone's claims to have built more classrooms on its property for children. Firestone runs its own schools and health clinics on its acreage. Unfortunately, the clinics are only open three days a week, and to attend the schools, a child must be able to prove that they were born on the Firestone property by providing a birth certificate issued and available from Firestone, for a fee.

There are children who have never set foot off of the Firestone Plantation and have lived in these deplorable conditions, breathing in the toxic putrid smell of latex their entire lives. Poverty allows them no other option. What options and/or obligations does the billion-dollar plus, profit-making Firestone company have to its employees and what is it willing to offer to the Liberian people for partaking and profiting from its natural resources? What, besides illness, poverty and exploitation is Firestone willing to provide to the people of Liberia ? The use of children as laborers on the rubber plantation is totally against international laws including ILO Convention and American and Liberian Labor laws, but until recently, nobody seemed to care.

Exploitation of child labor and human rights issues are only part of Firestone's problems. It seems the chemical effluent or run-off, is being dumping into nearby Farmington River and has virtually killed off the entire river. The groundwater is contaminated and "Local fishermen have lost all source of livelihood, herdsmen cannot raise their cattle because animals drinking water from the river die mysteriously, groundwater on the mainland is contaminated, and the locals have abandoned all of the wells along the river bank," Said Alfred Brownell, an Attorney for Green Advocates, an environmental monitoring organization in Liberia. The air pollution, a visible smoke mixture of chemicals and carbon dioxide, is released and inhaled by inhabitants of nearby Harbel town.In response to allegations of environmental damage by Firestone, the company recently responded by presenting its own environmental cleanup plan to the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency. The plan, which has not been released to the public, was rejected by the Liberian government and is at present, still in negotiations. Firestone's press department further claimed 2005-2006 Firestone's "Environmentally Friendly Year." In 2007, it won the Public Eye Global Award for being one of the worst polluters.

The conditions at the Firestone Plantation are deplorable and it has been this way since 1926 when American Harvey Firestone crafted a sweet 99-year land lease deal for his newfound company that gave Firestone one million acres of rich West African land blessed with an over abundance of rubber trees at a mere 6 cents an acre. In exchange, Liberia would accept a soft $5 million loan from the American via one of his formed companies to help Liberia repay its debt to the USA. The sweetheart deal promised a shared prosperity that has never come to fruition, at least not in any real sense, for the government of Liberia and its people. For Firestone, however, operating in Liberia has meant lower costs, evasion of taxes, and most of all, record profits.

In 2005, Liberia's transitional government signed another concession agreement with Firestone for an extra 37 years. Despite the fact that the transitional government may not have had authority to broker such a deal, the revised agreement gave Firestone an extension on its original lease and more time to pursue its damaging course. The new government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is reviewing the concession agreement and is in the process of renegotiating many of its terms since many of the agreements made by the transitional government did not give Liberia an equitable share of the financial benefits that it is due. Additionally, the agreement allowed Firestone to set the price of rubber and thereby control its pricing and taxable income numbers. A small share of tax on profits is all that Liberia is to receive.

Additionally, the Liberian government was left out of any equity share in the investment, this despite the fact that rubber is Liberia's number one export. Again, Firestone took advantage of Liberia's post war vulnerability, to negotiate an extended agreement beneficial to no one except itself. Firestone's African land grab, plantation conditions, economic exploitation and human rights abuses are happening today, by a multi-national corporation owned by American and Japanese investors. This is not the work of an overthrown colonial power of yesterday. This is modern day slavery and exploitation and every single person who drives or buys products made by Bridgestone/Firestone should be aware of the conditions associated with the production of their products. As consumers, we have a lot of say about how we want our products produced and we can demand that Firestone treat its workers with due dignity and respect. It must also continue reforms and set fair quota standards for its workers. Children must not be used as workers on its plantation.

At last, someone has stepped up and is ready to fight for the children and exploited workers. The International Labor Rights Fund filed an Alien Tort Claims Act case in the US District Court of California against Bridgestone alleging "Forced labor, the modern equivalent of slavery" on the Firestone Plantation in Harbel, Liberia. According to the Lawsuit filed in 2005, on behalf of 35 Liberian child and former child laborers, who remain anonymous, "The plantation workers allege, among other things, that they remain trapped by poverty and coercion on a frozen-in-time Plantation operated by Firestone in a manner identical to how the Plantation was operated when it was first opened by Firestone in 1926," states the lawsuit. The plaintiffs grew up on the Plantation and brought their case before a U.S. Court because Liberia's war crippled legal system was unable to handle the case. In June 2007, the judge in the lawsuit against Firestone ruled against Firestone's motion to dismiss the case. As of today, the case is moving forward on the child labor claims, but no status details are available to the public.

To learn more about the case and take action against Firestone, visit the Stop Firestone Campaign at http://www.stopfirestone.org


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

AfricaFocus Bulletin can be reached at africafocus@igc.org. Please write to this address to subscribe or unsubscribe to the bulletin, or to suggest material for inclusion. For more information about reposted material, please contact directly the original source mentioned. For a full archive and other resources, see http://www.africafocus.org


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