Burnt rub­ber: Fire­stone cuts back in Liberia

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

US rub­ber gi­ant Fire­stone, no stranger to con­tro­versy dur­ing its 90 years in Liberia, is again stok­ing anger, this time for fir­ing hun­dreds of work­ers who now fear for their liveli­hoods. Fire­stone has car­ried out two waves of sack­ings over the last few months, aim­ing at a seven per­cent cut in the work­force be­cause of what it de­scribes as “on­go­ing sig­nif­i­cant and un­sus­tain­able losses” due to de­pressed rub­ber prices.

Work­ers at its plan­ta­tion around an hour from the Liberian cap­i­tal, aware of strong com­pe­ti­tion from Asia and the lit­tle respite in sight for the rub­ber mar­ket, fear they have few means of fight­ing back. “The day we were told, the same day, 189 peo­ple had al­ready been laid off,” said Har­ris Kerkula, pres­i­dent of the Fire­stone Agri­cul­tural Work­ers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), who told AFP the firm had bro­ken a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment. After in­ter­ven­tion by the la­bor min­istry, a few dozen jobs were saved, but of­fi­cials asked the union to ac­cept the re­dun­dan­cies “be­cause the com­pany is go­ing through some dif­fi­cul­ties”, Kerkula added.

As Liberia’s big­gest pri­vate sec­tor em­ployer, with around 8,000 staff, Fire­stone’s plan­ta­tions in Har­bel have grown into an en­tire com­mu­nity over the decades, pro­vid­ing a gen­er­ous pack­age of ser­vices the state can­not match. As a re­sult, re­dun­dancy means work­ers lose their free hous­ing, money for school fees, med­i­cal care and sub­si­dized meals in one fell swoop, with just six weeks’ sev­er­ance pay for many. “I will be go­ing to Lofa County where I was born be­cause if I stay here my fam­ily will die from hunger,” for­mer em­ployee Nyumah Tamba told AFP. “I have been work­ing for nine years and I am leav­ing with noth­ing,” he said, watch­ing his three chil­dren play nearby.

Crit­ics say Fire­stone has al­ways ex­ploited Liberi­ans. Al­le­ga­tions of child la­bor and “slave-like” work­ing con­di­tions have dogged the com­pany for years, de­spite more re­cent im­prove­ments. In 2014, US me­dia out­lets ProPublica and PBS Front­line ac­cused Fire­stone of pay­ing off the regime of for­mer dic­ta­tor Charles Tay­lor dur­ing the early years of the 1989-2003 civil war to al­low its op­er­a­tions to con­tinue. Chil­dren were forced to work along­side their par­ents to meet im­pos­si­bly high pro­duc­tion tar­gets, oth­ers al­leged.

The firm de­nied fund­ing Tay­lor’s atroc­i­ties and as­serted that it sim­ply paid taxes as re­quired by any govern­ment. Child labour was not per­mit­ted, Fire­stone added. But de­spite many twists and turns through some of Liberia’s dark­est years, these re­dun­dan­cies are the first since the 1980s, the com­pany claims. In an email to AFP, the firm de­fended its de­ci­sion on the grounds of low nat­u­ral rub­ber prices and high over­head costs as­so­ci­ated with the com­pany’s con­ces­sion agree­ment, along with Liberia’s “un­cer­tain busi­ness cli­mate”. Fur­ther­more, as a di­rect re­sult of the 14-year civil war, when new rub­ber trees were not planted, pro­duc­tion was low, Fire­stone said.

Govern­ment Cash Cow

The mo­not­o­nous work of rub­ber tap­ping may not seem im­me­di­ately at­trac­tive to work­ers, but the Fire­stone pack­age is rare in a so­ci­ety with cat­a­strophic ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards and an ab­sence of train­ing pro­grams. More than 16,000 stu­dents are en­rolled in 17 Fire­stone-funded schools, while the Fire­stone Med­i­cal Cen­tre, a 300-bed hos­pi­tal cares for 5,700 pa­tients a month. Since 2004, Fire­stone says it has paid $1 bil­lion in tax rev­enue to the govern­ment - in­dis­pens­able in a na­tion that counts the pres­ence of just a hand­ful of multi-na­tion­als.

La­bor Min­is­ter Neto Zarzar Lighe was care­ful not to crit­i­cize the firm in an in­ter­view with AFP. “A to­tal of 500 em­ploy­ees were to be re­dun­dant and we were able to re­duce that to 428 em­ploy­ees. That is sig­nif­i­cant,” he said. He de­fended the firm against ac­cu­sa­tions they had re­neged on a pen­sion agree­ment with em­ploy­ees, say­ing that as the scheme was pri­vate and non-con­trib­u­tory, dif­fer­ent rules ap­plied. It was not al­ways like this: Fire­stone and its em­ploy­ees en­joyed the boom years when Detroit’s au­to­mo­bile firms were the pow­er­house of the Amer­i­can econ­omy.

But to­day life is much changed for the work­ers who have been let go. Some have turned to plan­ta­tions aban­doned by Fire­stone, tap­ping the same trees as con­trac­tors and climb­ing per­ilously high up the ex­hausted trunks with the hope of find­ing some re­main­ing la­tex. “(Fire­stone) give us $180 for a ton of rub­ber. To get the one ton you have to work for at least two months be­cause we climb the tree be­fore get­ting to the liq­uid,” said Zayzay Flomo, 30. “It’s pure slav­ery”. — AFP

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