14,000 ‘Slaves’ Seek Relief

The Analyst

Few kilometers from the nation’s capital, Monrovia, sprawls the largest rubber plantation in the world, Firestone Plantations Company or FPCO.

Officially the plantation provides employment to some 6,000 plantation workers in several departments including medical, rubber processing, maintenance, and transportation, etc.

A casual visitor to the bubbling plantation sees harmony everywhere, with happy-go-lucky rubber tappers darting from rubber tree to rubber tree, with truck drivers moving at leisurely speed, sometimes engaging the whole road, and with students off to “fees-free” school and the sick attending “fee-free” hospitals.

But a lawsuit currently before the United States District Court in the Central District of California says all of this is a sham covering over decades of modern day slavery system planned during the zenith of colonial exploitation in Africa by the Bridgestone Corporation, Bridgestone Americas Holding Inc., BFS Diversified Products, LLC, Firestone Polymers, LLC and the Firestone Natural Rubber Company as a consortium based in the U.S. and executed by the Firestone Plantations Company based in Liberia.

Now a lawsuit that is filed by the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), represented by a panel of six counsels is demanding “injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages, and disgorgement of all profits”. But the question on the lips of many is, “Can a US court provide such relief for black Africans against US private corporate interest, a major tax earner?”

The Analyst’s Staff Writer has been leafing through the “Class Action Complaint for Injunctive Relief and Damages” filed by barrister Terry Collingsworth et al.

The ILRF, represented by barrister Terry Collingsworth of Washington D.C. and Atty. Alfred Brownell of the Green Advocates based in Liberia, has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 14,000 Liberian plantation workers alleging organized and carefully implemented modern-day slavery and injurious working conditions.

“Many, if not most, of the present tappers on the Firestone Plantation, including Plaintiffs herein, are descendants of the original, forcibly conscripted laborers recruited at gunpoint to work on the Firestone Plantation.

Many of the current tappers are the 3rd or 4th generation of laborers on the Firestone Plantation, and have rarely, if ever, set foot off the Firestone-controlled property,” ILRF said.

According to the group’s complaint, the FPCO has avoided the social and economic progress of the last century, insisting that from the perspective of the workers, the economic situation has deteriorated.

“Today, the tappers, including Plaintiffs herein, labor much like their ancestors did in the late 1920's and 1930's. The tappers begin each day at 4:30 a.m. by rising to clean the tapper cups that must be mounted on each tree that is tapped. A primitive machete-like tool is used to cut the tree to let the sap, latex, seep into the cup. The tapper collects the latex from the cups and dumps it into large buckets, that, when filled, weigh 75 pounds each.

When 2 buckets are full, the tapper finds a tree branch, and with a bucket at each end, walks for up to an hour to dump his 150-pound load into collection barrels. The tappers apply fertilizers and pesticides by hand, without any warnings or safety equipment. The tappers do not have any safety equipment of any kind,” ILRF claimed.

It further claimed that just as in the 1920s, the tappers live a hand-to-mouth subsistence existence even though they were assigned quotas that tried as they did they would never be able to complete without hiring a hand, usually their underage children.

Said ILRF- describing a typical day of a Firestone tapper: “A tapper today on the Firestone Plantation is assigned three ‘tasks.’ A ‘task’ is a section of rubber trees that numbers approximately 750 trees. To get the daily wage of $3.19 (before deductions), a tapper must tap a complete task, 750 trees, and ½ of a second task, 375 trees, for a total of at least 1,125 trees. If the tapper completes 750 trees, but not the additional 375, he loses 50% of his daily pay, so he would get only $1.59.

“And that is the heart of the system of forced labor and child labor. The difference between $3.19 and $1.59 is the difference between barely surviving and starving. In addition to facing the impossible task of tapping 1,125 trees, each tapper is responsible for cleaning and placing the tapping cups on each of the trees in his tasks, as well as applying pesticides and fertilizers. He must also trim and otherwise keep his trees healthy.

“And then there is the most dreaded burden: the tapper must load himself like a mule and walk barefoot for up to an hour carrying 150 pounds of latex balancing two heavy buckets on a stick. Many of the tappers bear extreme scars and bone and muscle deformities on their shoulders from performing this onerous task three times a day.

“The 1,125 trees correspond to the more important number from Firestone’s perspective – each tapper must deliver six 75-pound buckets of latex per day to meet their quota. And at the beginning and end of each day the tappers and their accompanying family members must walk up to an hour to and from the shacks provided to them as residences to the trees assigned to them.

There is no tapper working at the Firestone Plantation who could possibly tap 1,125 trees in a day, and also clean the cups, treat the trees, and make the three deliveries a day carrying 150 pounds of latex each trip.”

This somehow pathetic picture, according to the counsels for the client workers, is not perpetrated without the knowledge of scores of plantation overseers and supervisors at the Firestone Plantation, the government of Liberia, and the parent companies of FPCO.

They said the plantation overseers and supervisors personally advise tappers to put their underage children to work in order to complete their tasks and meet their latex quotas for the day.

“They are told that their children will starve if they don’t get out and work. Tappers who fall short of the daily 1,125 tree requirement, and are then docked 50% of their daily pay no matter how close they come to the quota, are told to get some help from their children,” the lawsuit claimed.

Giving possible reason why its clients do not consider quitting the onerous task, the group said quitting would mean joining the national statistics of over 80% unemployed.

“Firestone says with confidence that anyone who wants to leave can do so and join the ranks of the starving unemployed,” the group said.

On whether education and healthcare on the plantation were free, the lawsuit said they were not: “Defendants claim to the public that tappers and their families are provided with ‘free’ medical care at company clinics on the Firestone Plantation. In fact, the clinic is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the workers joke in their resigned-to-life way that they need to make sure they get sick or injured on one of those days to keep Firestone happy.

Defendants proclaim to the public that they provide free education to Plantation residents. In reality the workers, including Plaintiffs herein, are charged for various school fees, either directly, or through an ‘income tax’ deducted from their pay.

“Most workers have no idea exactly how much they are charged per child to enroll a child in the Firestone Plantation School, but they know it is not ‘free.’ As with all other issues relating to their pay, workers simply receive each month what the company unilaterally informs them they have earned, minus company-calculated deductions, which often involve company profit-making schemes.

“Many workers, including Plaintiffs herein, believe that the Firestone Plantation puts up these formidable hurdles to education to ensure that the plantation continues to have a steady stream of uneducated, desperate workers willing to endure the horrific conditions of the Firestone Plantation in order to earn enough to eat.

“The tappers are paid each month, and each month the tappers, many of whom are illiterate, receive their computer-printed pay stubs with a myriad of deductions imposed and calculated by the Firestone Plantation.

Amounts are deducted for rice from the company store, the sole source of food on the remote plantation, ‘income tax,’ which none of the Plaintiffs herein were able to define, with most of them speculating that it was to pay for the company school, ‘reconstruction tax,’ which again none of the Plaintiffs herein could explain, although they speculated it was to pay for their ‘free’ one-room shacks they were given to share with their entire families, and ‘union dues,’ which they are required to pay for a ‘union’ the company set up without the knowledge or consent of the workers.

At the end of the month, the workers are left with virtually nothing, enough to buy enough food to continue their cycle of subsistence poverty.”

Firestone seems proud of providing housing for its employees, but the group simply referred to a typical tappers’ camp as a shanty town that contrast sharply with the dwelling places of senior company employees: “The one-room shacks provided to the tappers are situated in shanty towns. Open sewers run along the central dirt road, and an open latrine leaches human waste a few feet from the shanty-town’s pit well.

The Firestone Plantation made some recent renovations to some of the shacks, replacing some of the leaking roofs with new asbestos tiles. These shanty towns are in stark contrast to the large villas built on the higher grounds of the Firestone Plantation for the Firestone Plantation managers from the United States and Japan.

These homes have verandas, swimming pools, and all the comforts of home. A private golf course is maintained on the Firestone Plantation for the expatriate managers to enjoy in their leisure time. Within each of the large homes occupied by the foreign overseers, former plantation workers serve as domestic staff, promoted up from life in the fields, and are able to enjoy a few scraps of the good life.”

Describing the plantations as a “private fiefdom” that started as a criminal occupation of Liberia by Firestone in 1926, the group said the defendants are directly liable for any actions alleged in the lawsuit that they aided and abetted by knowingly providing financial support, supplies, training, regular arrangements to purchase or receive the raw material outputs, and/or other substantial assistance that contributed to the ability of their agents, subsidiaries, employees and/or partners to use and/or facilitate the use of forced labor and/or forced child labor from the Firestone Plantation to obtain rubber and latex.

They then filed a 13-count petition seeking injunctive relief and damage and trial by jury for violation of several laws and statutes including the Alien Tort Statute, Protocol Amending the Slavery Convention, International Labour Organisation Convention No. 29 Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour and the labor laws of Liberia.

In view of what it calls flagrant violation of Liberian, US, and international law, ILRF prayed the court to enter judgment in favor of the complainants.

Amongst the group’s demands on behalf of its estimated 14,000 supposedly enslaved clients are compensatory and punitive damages, equitable relief including, but not limited to an injunction prohibiting further damage to their persons and their rights under the laws of California and customary international law; and injunctive relief, disgorgement of all profits resulting from these unfair business practices alleged in the lawsuit such that restitution is made to the general public.

Moreover, the group demands the costs of suit including reasonable attorneys’ fees and such other and further relief as the Court deems just and equitable under the circumstances.

But “can a US court provide such relief for black Africans against US private corporate interest, a major tax earner?”

The answer to this question may never be known for several months, but in an interview with FrontPage Africa early this week, ILRF’s Executive Director, Terry Collingsworth and head of the counsel for the plantation workers, said the night may be dark and long, but dawn is sure to come.

"These cases take time. In Burma it took nine years, for our first human rights case to take off," he said.

Asked about contentions from Firestone that his organization is an attention-seeking entity, Collingswood said, "They can say what all they want, but this is the best case I've ever had. One person has to work 21 hour-day work and that's not fair.

They have to answer the complaints. The plantation workers are modern day slaves, forced to work by the coercion of poverty, with the prospect of starvation just one complaint about conditions away.”

For its part, the Japanese company, with North American headquarters in Nashville, says it has yet to be served with the lawsuit, but says the claims were completely without merit.

In a statement served to FrontPageAfrica on Monday, the company says it is committed to its long-term partnership with the Liberian people.

“Our business is built on relationships based on the core values of respect and trust for our customers, our communities and our team-mates. Firestone is doing more than any other private entity to invest in the rebuilding of Liberia in the aftermath of a decades long war. We provide our team-mates in Liberia with stable jobs, housing, health care and free education.

"While we have not been served, through media reports we understand that a lawsuit has been filed by the International Labor Rights Fund. This group has a long track record of filing and losing similar lawsuits against corporations.

The allegations by this group are outrageous and are simply not supported by the facts. This has more do with generating headlines than with seeking justice. We will vigorously defend ourselves against this lawsuit which is completely without merit,” said a company statement.

According to the company, the jobs it provides are among the highest paying in Liberia and workers are represented by a labor union.

"Working conditions and wages are the result of a collective bargaining process freely entered into by both sides. We do not employ anyone under 18, have strict policies against child labor and prohibit the practice of parents having their children work with them."

The company's statement said it is building new homes at Firestone Liberia, as the decades-long war has taken a severe toll on all the country's infrastructure.

"We are rebuilding the Firestone Hospital to improve the medical care we provide to our team-mates and the other citizens in Liberia," it said.

But ILRF insists that indication of any improvement must be seen in changes in the awarding of tasks, the assigning of achievable quotas for the average worker to negate the use of child laborers, the improvement of wages to raise the standard of living of plantation workers, and provision of modern tools to protect works on the job from coming into contact with harmful chemicals.

Unless these are done, ILRF says, any claim of improvement on the plantation is a repeat of the vain public relation stunts of the past.