-Local workers lament unsafe working conditions at Logging Companies
A damning new report has detailed the terrible working conditions akin to forced labor in Liberia’s timber industry across the country, where many young, poor workers with little economic opportunities become trapped in exploitation by logging companies.
The report revealed that workers often labored on the job and physical insecurities for months without livable wages amid life-threatening conditions.
The report, which stems out of research/investigation by the National Union of Community Forestry Development Committees (NUCFDC) and the EU Non-state Actor (EU-NSA) funded project, also highlights issues regarding lack of mechanisms for monitoring and reporting on labor conditions on the part of relevant stakeholders in the timber sector.
The research considered five cardinal areas – employment, health and safety, housing, food rations, and trade unions. The companies were found to be in violation of many of the thematic areas outlined above.
Workers were often forced into labor without contracts with some having long and exhausting schedules with unsanitary access to food and safe drinking water. Lacking labor rights, workers commonly toiled for months not knowing for what or how long they are working.
While some can boast of a housing facility and food ration, others are provided nothing as such, the report, launched recently in Monrovia unveiled. The report was launched by the National facilitator of NUCFDC, Andrew Zelemen. The report is what some have termed as a frank assessment of employment conditions for logging company workers in the three FMCs in Liberia.
The investigation, which examined employment contracts, health and safety issues, housing, and collective bargaining in three of the seven of the Forest Management Contracts (FMCs) currently operating in the country, explains how timber workers in the country have suffered widespread and long-term exploitation.
These FMCs include, FMC A: Alpha Logging and Wood Processing Incorporated, commonly known as Alpha—Lofa and Gbarpolu Counties—with a total area of 119,240 hectares; FMC I: Geblo Logging Incorporated FMC I—Sinoe and Grand Gedeh Counties—with a total area of 131,466 hectares and FMC K:
International Consultant Capital Incorporated (ICC)—FMC K is the largest logging concession in Liberia, at 266,910 hectares (15% in Rivercess County, 48% in Nimba County and 37% Grand Gedeh County). Geblo has been renamed Ruby Light.
Some issues identified by the researchers, according to EU-NSA National Project Coordinator, Abraham Billy, who provided an overview of the report, include inconsistent wording in social agreements around the preference for workers from local communities (and monitoring of this stated preference); lack of appropriate or inadequate employment contracts and implications for compliance with minimum wage laws; and obstacles to organized or the formation of trade unions.
Billy said job security is serious issue in all three of the FMCs as vast majority of the workers are part-time casual laborers. He said full employment stands at 15percent (Alpha—out of 73 total workers), 14 percent (ICC—total number not available) and Ruby Light has 179 but statistics on employment was unavailable. Sources said Ruby Light was unwilling to disclose information about its workforce.
“Majority of the workers at Alpha have formal contracts, but these contracts are irregular, while the majority at ICC have no formal contracts. We could find no statistics for those with Ruby light,” he said.
“Shelter is another major constraint that logging company workers are being faced with as many of them do not have housing facilities on the camp. Forty percent of Alpha workers reside on the camp while only 10 percent of ICC workers do, and Ruby Light is 30 percent. Many of the workers have to find their way to work from surrounding villages and town, some of which are far away,” Billy said, adding that trucks are sometimes made available to take some to and from work.
Call made to ICC and two others in the wake of the report could not be answered; ICC’s office phone ran but there was no response while the other two could not ring.
The report disclosed that there is no First Aid team at two of the three FMCs—Alpha and Ruby Light and they do not have First Aid Facilities as well. It also says that there is no emergency vehicle for workers at any of the FMCs.
The report unveiled that gender consideration is very low in all of the FMCs.
According to the report, the NUCFDC researchers found that the provision of safety materials is irregular with some having none at all—thereby putting them in harm’s way with no protection from dangerous elements, disease, and dangerous wildlife. Some of the contractors were rarely given proper training to work on dangerous equipment, thereby risking their lives.
“It happens a lot that any kind of jerky movement on the log or tractor can endanger anyone’s life. Logs could often roll over and have anyone crushed,” one worker is quoted as saying.
There is limited data available on the severity and prevalence of some instances of exploitation and abuses due to monitoring mechanisms from government, especially the Ministry of Labor and other relevant government entities.
“We are consistently in harms’ way as safety gears remain unchanged for years. Most of them become useless but we still have to use them because those are the only ones we have.
According to the research report, the Decent Work Act, VPA, FMC contracts, and social agreements were analyzed, along with interviews with workers, managers and other officials during the course of the research. It was discovered that many of the laws that govern the industry are deliberate floated by FMCs.
The 2015 Decent Work Act, which provides the means by which all workers in Liberia should be treated, and the Code of Forest Harvesting Practice (CFHP) also provides a detailed welfare plan for workers’ safety and protection; Clause B3.23 of the (FMC) says that in the selection of employees to conduct its operations under this contract, are all being violated.
Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between Liberia and the European Union (EU) is another instrument that is being heavily violated by logging companies, the report said.
Despite the enactment of these laws, regulations and agreements to improve the forest sector governance, there have been incessant complaints from workers and communities about how workers’ rights have been violated by logging companies.
From the time of the allocation of the FMC to Alpha, there have been a number of reports highlighting possible failures by Alpha to follow the laws.
“By law, no company should harvest logs until a Social Agreement is signed, but that was not the case with Alpha. The company started operation in Gbarpolu before a Social Agreement was later signed,” the report disclosed.
According to VPA reports, Geblo owed US$1.3 million in area and contract fees as of the end of 2018. CFDC representatives state that the operations are currently in two counties – Sinoe and Grand Gedeh and that the concession has had several operators since the award of the contract, in some instances violating the laws that govern the industry.
For ICC, from the time of the FMC was granted, the report says that there have been a number of reports highlighting possible failures by ICC to follow the law.
According to VPA reports, ICC owed US$1.4 million in area and contract fees as of the end of 2018.