Workers talk of hardship at Liberia's Firestone


By Katharine Houreld

MONROVIA, Liberia (Reuters) - With his ragged child's overalls and 4-foot frame, 11-year-old Zachariah does not look like a typical plantation laborer.

But every morning he is not in school, the Liberian child gets up at dawn to help his father work on the Firestone rubber plantation so their family of eight can afford one meal a day.

"He doesn't want to go into the bush, but if he doesn't come I can't do my job," said his father Alysious. "Sometimes my wife will come too, but then it is hard to care for the other children."

Alysious' shoulders bear dark calluses from carrying heavy buckets of latex, the milky tree sap used to make rubber.

Like all the workers on the Japanese-owned tire maker's plantation, Alysious must tap latex from 600 to 900 trees per day and prepare an equal number for the next day's harvest.

Even if they work from dawn until after dark, workers say they do not have enough time to complete the task and are forced either to employ someone or use their wives and children as unpaid labor.

The International Labor Rights Fund, a non-profit group promoting fair working practices, filed a lawsuit against Firestone in California this month alleging that poor conditions and pay on the plantation amounted to virtual slavery -- allegations the company denies.

"The plantation workers are stripped of rights, they are isolated, they are at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to lodging," the lawsuit said.

"They risk expulsion and certain starvation if they raise even minor complaints, and the company makes willful use of this situation to exploit these workers."


Dan Adomitis, head of Firestone Natural Rubber Company, the firm's Liberian operation, has described the allegations as outrageous.

"This is a country coming out of 15 years of civil war, with an unemployment rate of 85 percent," he said, adding that the company refused to hire minors.

"We employ 7,000 people every day. Our health clinics see 9,000 people every day, and we are educating 7,000 children. I think that (lawsuit) is totally uninformed."

In a country where most people live on less than $1 a day, Firestone's daily wage of $3.19 is above average. The company points out that healthcare and schooling provided for workers' children is free.

But the employees tell a different story. Their payslips show over a third of their wages go in deductions, some for a union they believe panders to the management.

Despite repeated requests to withdraw from the union, workers complain that dues are automatically deducted. They say the union, which Firestone treats as their sole representative, compromises on key issues such as safety equipment.

The company school for the laborers' children has inadequate resources and there are 80 to 90 children to a class.

"Children have to buy their own chair," exclaimed one man, adding that one chair with an armrest for writing cost around $400 Liberian dollars -- about two days' wages.

In the Firestone settlement where Alysious and his children live, the houses are mildewed hovels. A pungent green leak runs from the latrine into the ground near the well.

Alysious says his children get sick from drinking the water: The oldest died after developing diarrhea and the youngest is sick. The children all have prominent ribs and swollen stomachs, telltale signs of malnutrition.

"In my 22 years of working in corporate accountability issues, I've never seen a situation so extreme as the conditions on the Firestone plantation," said Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Fund.

"There are thousands of children working on that plantation and thousands of adults who have been trapped there their entire lives," Collingsworth said.


The workers' plight is not unique. Liberia's infrastructure was shattered so badly by the civil war that there has been no electricity or running water for over a decade.

The conflict ended two years ago, but few people have jobs. On the streets of Monrovia, young girls sell their bodies for less than $1 a time to earn money to go to school.

Liberians hope new leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who became Africa's first elected female president last month with a mandate to tackle graft and restore basic services, will help restart an economy that was once the envy of West Africa.

Like many Liberians, Alysious' family lack even basic identity documents, a result of the destruction of government administration systems during the war.

Since Alysious' children do not have cards identifying them as the dependents of a Firestone worker, they cannot access the free school or the clinic the company is busy refurbishing.

Instead, their father pays for a private school nearby and they scrimp on food, hoping their education will give them a better future.

Alysious himself has worked his whole life, through childhood, war and bereavement.

He labored unpaid alongside his father as a boy and finally as a full-time Firestone employee, working every Sunday, every holiday except Christmas and every spare moment to maximize his earnings.

Yet he cannot afford beds for his children or food to stop their stomachs growling.

"This job is very hard: no money, no good facilities," Alysious said, his scarred hand resting softly on his son's head. "But maybe they learn something for tomorrow. They will do a different job, God willing."