Liberia: A Gulag of Misery
Like many nations in Africa, Liberia has a sad tale to tell. After an optimistic founding in the 1820s by former slaves from the Americas, the country has since felt the brunt of two civil wars, the last of which only just ended. The nation is now largely dependent on foreign investment and lacks any kind of economic base outside of the export of raw materials such as timber, iron, and rubber. As a result, unemployment is at a staggering 85 percent.
Bridgestone Firestone, a U.S.-based tire company, has added its name to the list of franchises guilty of exploiting cheap labor pools, such as those created by the conditions in Liberia. The Firestone National Rubber Company, which operates chiefly in Liberia, is a subsidiary of Bridge- stone Americas Holding Inc, which is a subsidiary of the Bridgestone Corporation, which operates in Tokyo.
Firestone workers on Liberian rubber plantations are given a quota to fill for a day’s work, which for the “tappers” amounts to extracting fresh rubber from no less than 750 trees. According to the company CEO, Dan Adomitis, this quota can take an average of 21 hours to complete. If employees fail to make the mark, they can expect to lose half of the day’s wage of around $3.30, an astonishingly low wage considering the corporation raked in over $23 billion in 2004 alone.
The long hours force many workers to bring their families to work, resulting in a massive upsurge in child labor. These children have been known to work in excess of 12-14 hours a day. And the intensity of the labor and the physical strength needed to carry buckets of unprocessed latex has stunted the growth of many children. Even worse, many chemicals used in the refining process are toxic and pose a threat to the health of the workers. Firestone is also in the habit of dumping its toxic fallout directly into the nearby Farmington River, which is used by many nearby communities as a water source.
Onsite accommodations for workers are also notably spartan. Many of the buildings date back to the initial construction of the plantation in 1926 and lack running water, electricity, and adequate latrines.
Change In The Air
Because Liberians endure a high rate of poverty and joblessness, their dependency on foreign investors like Firestone is absolute. In such an environment, the fear of losing one’s job and being reduced to starvation is overwhelming.
Despite the fear of unemployment, there have been several notable challenges to plantation bosses. First, international labor organizations have publicized the horror stories coming out of the country, which has led to greater scrutiny of working condi- tions on the plantations.
The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF)—along with organizations such as Friends of the Earth and the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights—have joined hands in their condemnation of Firestone’s unethical practices. The ILRF has referred to the Firestone plantation as a “gulag of misery” and has drafted a joint statement demanding an increase in wages and a repeal of child labor. The ILRF has also attempted to bring Firestone to court on charges of violating international labor laws.
In response to mounting attention, Firestone has made what international observer Mike Zielinski of the United Steel Workers in the U.S. has termed “cosmetic changes.” Several new and better shacks have been built, as well as a school for the children laboring on the plantation. The bulk of the new housing, however, is still without adequate comforts, something which Zielinski says is “unacceptable for the 21st century.”
Last May Day, the workers struck for higher wages and for the resignation of Industrial Relations Manager Fay Roberts. After clashing with police, several strikers were injured, with others being dragged off to prison.
While trade unionism is still one of the best methods for workers to raise their standard of living, in nations like Liberia it’s widely condemned on the grounds that it will “scare off” foreign investors, many of them Western. For years a “yellow” union has operated on the plantation, but it became so unpopular with the workers that they attempted to form a new and independent organization to represent their interests. In recent elections the new union won all eight industrial positions on offer.
The key issue behind the elections—aside from wages and working conditions—is that they be able to take place free of interference from employers. Unfortunately, the old union has contested the election to the point of taking out a legal injunction—which has made it all the way to the Liberian Supreme Court. Firestone is therefore refusing to recognize the elected delegates, despite the fact that they won by an effective landslide.
While this may paint a depressing picture, there is also room for optimism. We are seeing a renewal of hope, coupled with outrage at a business policy that demands people be so overworked that they need their children to lighten the burden.
The future now lies in the ability of those concerned to “stay the course” no matter how often the employers call in the police to break workers’ pickets. Labor organizations also need to offer solidarity. Then perhaps things will seem a little brighter for workers.
Dan Read is a freelance journalist and labor activist.