Firestone Mirred in Slave Labor Charges in Liberia

By Rodney D. Sieh

Since 1926, Liberia's Firestone Plantation in Harbel has been the leading source of revenue in Liberia. The bedrock of the American tire industry continues to flourish from the sweat of Liberians while the working conditions of those who produce the tires continue to raise eyebrows. Editor-in-Chief Rodney D. Sieh dissects the latest outcry against the American tire giant.

The tire maker Bridgestone Firestone is once again being mirred in controversy regarding working conditions of Liberians. A federal lawsuit in California accuses the firm of employing slave labor and child labor on its massive rubber plantation in Liberia.

"This is obviously what they do. They seem intent on suing as many corporations as they can. They're more interested in generating headlines than seeking justice. We don't think its fair and what they put in their lawsuit," said Dan Mac Donald, Media Relations Director at Bridgestone, Firestone, in an interview with FrontPageAfrica on Monday.

A lawsuit organized by the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Fund, which also helped organize a lawsuit in the 1990s against Unocal Corp. alleging human rights violations during the construction of a pipeline in Southeast Asia. claims the plaintiffs, identified only as John, James and Jane Roe, could not bring similar court actions in Liberia because of fear of retribution and corrupt court system. The suit, filed in Los Angeles federal court on last Thursday, seeks class action on behalf of 12 adult workers and 23 children who work and live on the so-called "Firestone Plantation" in Harbel, Liberia. The suit claims the workers are trapped in what it calls a "gulag of misery" and forced to work under conditions that have changed little since the plantation was founded in 1926.

ILRF Chief: 'Best Case I Ever Had'

Terry Collingsworth, Executive Director, of the ILRF told FrontPageAfrica on Monday that he was first contacted about the case by Alfred Brownell, a Green Advocate in Monrovia. "Brownell contacted me and described what was going on and after that I visited Liberia and saw first hand what was taking place there. I saw children working on the fields and personally interviewed about 100 people about conditions that which they said were very deteriorating."

Asked what the next step in the case is, Collingsworth said it will take sometime to get things going. "These cases take time. In Burma it took nine years, for our first human rights case to take off."

Asked about contentions from Firestone that his organization is an attention-seeking entity, Collingswood said: "They can say that 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," the lawsuit states.

Firestone's Statement

The civil war in Liberia which ran from 1990 to 1997 and from 2001 to 2003 had a disastrous effect on the Liberian economy, with many business people fleeing the country as rebels gained control of vast quantities of gold, diamonds, natural rubber, and tropical hardwoods. Until the 1950s, Liberia's economy was almost totally dependent upon subsistence farming and the production of rubber.

The American-owned Firestone plantation was the country's largest employer and held a concession on some one million acres (404,700 hectares) of land. With the discovery of high-grade iron ore, first at Bomi Hills, and then at Bong and Nimba, the production and export of minerals became the country's major cash-earning economic activity. Gold, diamonds, barite, and kyanite are also mined. Mineral processing plants are located near Buchanan and Bong.

Land Concession Extended

In February 2005, Liberia's transitional government headed by Charles Gyude Bryant extended the land concession granted to Firestone, the country's biggest rubber producer, for a further 36 years as part of its efforts to revive the economy after 14 years of civil war. But not everyone is happy. If ratified by parliament, the deal could trigger the first significant private investment into Liberia since the civil war ended in August 2003. "We have a plan to invest more than US$100 million in the rubber industry," said Firestone General Manager Charles Stuart.

The Supreme Court of Liberia has however, placed a stay order on the operation of the 2005/06 national budget of Liberia and the operations of the Mittal Steel, Firestone and all other contractual agreements entered into by the government of Liberia.

At the time of the agreement, many Liberians decried the move of the NTGL, suggesting that it should not have entered into another agreement with Firestone, because the company which has been active in the country for over seventy years, cannot show any meaningful development such as the building of roads, schools and health centers where the citizens would benefit.

Firestone Reacts

Harbel was connected to the national electricity grid, but power was only made available to contract employees of Firestone. The hundreds of unskilled rubber tappers employed by the company to harvest the latex from its trees were forced to continue relying on candles and parafin lamps. However, under the terms of the extension of its concession, Firestone is committed to the refurbishment of Harbel Multilateral High School. This used to provide schooling for plantation workers kids, but in recent years it has simply housed hundreds of people displaced from their homes by the civil war.

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 teammates. 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 teammates in Liberia with stable jobs, housing, health care and free education," said the statement.

'Not employing anyone under 18'

"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."

The company statement claims that their jobs 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 teammates and the other citizens in Liberia."