According to an Executive Mansion release, some stakeholders in the rubber industry of Liberia, including the Firestone Agriculture and Allied Workers Union (FAWUL) and the National Rubber Brokers and Farmers Union of Liberia (NARBFUL) on Friday, February 14 met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The two groups held separate consultative meetings with the President at her Foreign Affairs office to discuss issues ranging from better work environments for their laborers to a stronger focus from government on the activities of smallholder rubber farmers.
Responding to complaints and recommendations outlined to her by the leadership of FAWUL, President Sirleaf said the government is committed to protecting trade unions across the country, and expects the same from them to their employers and the government.
She promised to order an assessment of FAWUL’s complaint that the Firestone Plantation has lowered the standard of its housing units; departing from the 10-year plan that had been agreed upon between the government and management. Under that agreement, Firestone pledged to upgrade housing units from single bedroom apartments to at least two bedrooms with other facilities, including a kitchen, living room and bathrooms.
The release stated the President was equally concerned about worker’s access to medical facilities and availability of drugs in the concession area. She reminded union officials that the availability of drugs was not a problem for Firestone alone but also for government, due to Liberia’s transition from aid to development status. As a result, the government and drug procuring organizations operating are bearing the burden of purchasing drugs; often at increased prices that affect their availability to the average citizen.
She, however, assured the delegation that government would continue to make health care a priority and encourage Firestone to also see it that way.
Concerning the Decent Work Bill, President Sirleaf said that what was intended to be an initiative to further improve workers’ conditions had become a political tool for those seeking elected posts; thereby stalling the intent of the Bill. She expressed the hope that the Legislature would see reason to pass it into law during this sitting.
President Sirleaf also called on stakeholders in the rubber industry, including the Ministry of Agriculture, to work with plantation and factory owners to create a system where money could be placed into a stabilization fund.
The fund’s intention would be to rescue the industry whenever there is a low yield; as experienced by Firestone in the past.
At the close of the meeting, the FAWUL leadership, which included its president Austin Natee, vice president Joseph Tarnue, and secretary general Edwin Cisco, among others, pledged to work with the management of Firestone to address the concerns and constraints presented to President Sirleaf.
At the second meeting, the leadership of the NABFUL appealed to President Sirleaf to reconsider Executive Order #50, which places a moratorium on the exportation of unprocessed rubber and a halt on rubber brokers serving as buyers.
According to the group, the Order has put many smallholder farmers out of business because Firestone no longer provides transportation assistance to them to get their commodity to buying stations.
“Doing business was easier when brokers were allowed to buy rubber from smallholder farmers and then sell to Firestone or other competitors,” they said.
In response, President Sirleaf insisted that the moratorium would remain in force, but instructed the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, to work out modalities with Firestone to purchase rubber produced by smallholders.
She reminded the delegation that the moratorium was issued, among other things, to halt the exportation of unprocessed rubber across the border. The President said exporting rubber this way was causing Liberia huge losses in revenue.
The President also instructed Minister Chenoweth to look into reports of overlapping functions among the various rubber organizations – like the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia, the Rubber Development Association, the National Rubber Brokers and the Farmers Union – and determine if there is a need to reduce the number.
Other officials of Government present at the meeting included: Commerce Minister Axel Addy; Acting Justice Minister Wheatonia Dixon-Barnes; and Deputy Labor Minister for Administration, J. Cole Bangalu.
The National Rubber Brokers and Farmers Union were represented by former Senator Roland Kaine, Board Chair; James Sayekea, President; and former Agriculture Minister, Dr. Roland Massaquoi as a Board Member, the release concluded.