The attention of this newspaper is drawn to comments by the Firestone Management condemning workers strike action over pay, describing same as “misconduct”. In a story carried in the Monday, August 13th edition of the Daily Observer, reporter Simeon Wiakanty, quoting a press release issued by Firestone, said Management considered the work stoppages as illegal and tantamount to misconduct.
In the press release Firestone claimed that striking workers, aside from the work stoppages, also engaged in violent activities including the destruction of structures and the burning of rubber trees. And the disputes have centered on Firestone’s daily wage structure which the workers say is inadequate compared to the work they perform for Firestone.
This newspaper, in very clear and certain terms condemn the reported violence allegedly perpetrated by Firestone workers and it urges the workers to refrain from violence and instead seek redress through dialogue and negotiation and lastly to resort to legal and nonviolent action in case negotiations fail.
Having underscored the above, this newspaper however must remind Firestone that it is about time that it begins to respect the demands of workers for better wages and not to as in the past invite in the National Police Force to violently suppress the strike action using lethal force. The base daily wage of US$5.60 cents that Firestone pays its workers is grossly inadequate considering the backbreaking tasks that workers have to perform.
Each worker must rise at early dawn to tap 500 rubber trees well before mid-morning. During the afternoon they have collect the latex. And they must do so toting heavy buckets containing latex from the trees. In the course of their work they have to handle hazardous chemicals such as ammonia used to preserve the latex from contamination, and concentrated formic acid used to coagulate rubber.
They have to perform these tasks without the use of protective equipment. As Firestone Management rightly observed, Firestone, for more than 90 years has been a vital part of Liberia, meaning that a longstanding relationship subsists between Firestone and Liberia. We need not recall the fact that rubber has been Liberia’s largest income earning commodity since the 1920s.
But ironically, the relationship subsisting between Firestone and Liberia can be likened to that of a “horse and rider” relationship. Firestone from time immemorial has been the rider galloping with wild abandon on the backs of the Liberian people. This newspaper recalls from history that from its inception, Firestone practiced a policy of forced labor.
Having acquired a concession of one million acres of land for virtually nothing, meant the forced relocation of hundreds of villages and thousands of people from their ancestral lands without compensation. Further, thousands of workers were forcibly recruited by the Liberian government to work in the rubber plantations.
Each recruit was compelled to provide for his own sustenance during their period of peonage, after which they would be repatriated to their home villages with virtually nothing in hand to show for their hard labor. The disruption to subsistence rice production caused by the forced recruitment of thousands of farm hands has been immeasurable with the country becoming heavily dependent on imported foreign rice since the coming of Firestone to Liberia.
The initial land concession agreement was for ninety-nine years; however Firestone has each time sought to extend the life of the agreement. Currently Firestone is seeking to amend the agreement to allow for the production of rubber wood which they have already begun to produce as well as to venture into oil palm production.
But despite a near century old of operations, the rubber industry today remains in a state of backwardness. While neighboring countries like Guinea and the Ivory Coast are producing rubber products for export, Liberia cannot boast of producing a single rubber condom let alone to speak of rubber shoes and tyres.
Through a combination of bribery of government officials and intimidation of workers, according to sources, Firestone has maintained a virtual monopoly along with the other large concessions such as LAC and Sime Darby. In this regard, this Newspaper has seen the passage of legislation all intended to protect Firestone’s monopoly.
Currently, Liberian producers are barred from the export of raw rubber but Firestone and the big concessions are all exporting raw rubber and, needless to say, they have also manipulated pricing arrangements over the years. Moreover, Firestone over the years has polluted drinking water sources of people living around the plantation.
Firestone dumps chemical wastes into the Farmington River and at one point a lawsuit was filed in the United States against Firestone for polluting drinking water sources and harming the environment. Of course, the poor peasants lost the case against the corporate giant Firestone. During the civil war Firestone colluded and collaborated with a warring faction, the Charles Taylor led National Patriotic Front, supplying cash, rice and logistics according to the 2009 TRC Final Report.
It turned a blind eye and remained mute on atrocities committed against civilians on its plantations and it maintained production during the vicious civil conflict. The Carter Camp Massacre, in which over 400 civilians including Firestone workers and internally displaced peoples were killed, received not a single line or word of condemnation from Firestone.
But who can we hold responsible for Firestone’s missteps in Liberia except our national leadership which over the years have danced to every tune played by Firestone? Through monopolistic practices sanctioned by successive governments, Firestone continues to maintain a strangle hold on the rubber industry in Liberia.
Only recently, a Liberian businessman opened a rubber factory in Bomi County to produce crumb rubber. But already he has begun to face stiff but unfair competition from Firestone working through high ranking government functionaries to railroad the efforts of this enterprising Liberian.
This newspaper stands firmly at his side and would do so for any Liberian investor facing unfair foreign competition. And in doing so we cannot help but remind Liberians that it is that old culprit IMPUNITY responsible for Firestone’s exploitative behavior towards its workers. After all said and done, Firestone has always had her way and in the final analysis it will be counting on the Government of Liberia to, as usual, heel workers into line through the old but favorite tactics of bribery and intimidation.
Clearly, Firestone can and must do much more to provide its workers with a living wage and STOP paying the starvation wages it is currently paying its workers.