Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
I just returned from a trip to West Africa, including Liberia. During my trip to Liberia, I was able to meet the newly elected and recognized leadership of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia, talk with Liberian members of the Stop Firestone Coalition and visit the Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia. I saw first hand how Firestone continues to exploit workers, use child labor and harm the environment on their rubber plantation. I also was inspired by the incredible organizing workers have been doing to protect their rights and there is a lot we can do in the U.S. to stand in solidarity with these workers.
Keep reading to find out the latest about the Firestone campaign and how YOU can help fight exploitation!
During my first day in the Harbel, the city in Liberia where the Firestone plantation is located, I visited the Concerned Citizens of Owensgrove. This community organization is fighting to stop Firestone's pollution of
the Farmington River. This river has historically been used by the community for bathing and drinking as well as for fishing -- an activity which has supplied the community with food and income. The picture to the left shows raw sewage from the Firestone plant which is dumped into the river. The pollution has killed off river life and caused illness in the local population. As I rode in a boat down the river I felt sick because of the overwhelming stench of untreated chemicals being dumped by Firestone in the water around me. I could
see bubbles of chemicals and even clumps of latex at the edges of the water.
I then visited with a community member who had been fishing in the river since the 1960s. He had severe damage to his skin and feet because of his exposure to the water.
The work that the Concerned Citizens of Owensgrove is doing to hold Firestone accountable for its environmental damage is extremely important. As companies like Firestone seek to promote themselves as environmentally friendly, consumers need to dig deeper to see if their claims truly match reality.
Check out this video to take your own trip down the Farmington River!
Labor and Social Issues
Since the Stop Firestone campaign began, we have been talking about how rubber tappers on the Firestone plantation have a daily production quota that is too high to reasonably achieve. As a result, workers are forced to bring their wives and children to work just so that the one formal employee in the family is able to achieve their quota and get the roughly $3/day wage. Firestone has denied the existence of child labor, but just two weeks ago, I saw 14 year olds carrying buckets weighing a total of 150 pounds on sticks on their shoulders. I was shocked to see how workers have to carry these heavy buckets on their backs for as long as a mile to dump the latex they collect into large collection barrels. I saw workers whose shoulders were disfigured from the long term wear and tear of working under these conditions. Workers get up at 5AM to toil all day in the incredible heat (I was dripping with sweat).
You can also see in the photo above that the rubber tapper is wearing sandals. Workers have to purchase their own boots if they want to protect their feet and they are not given gloves or other safety equipment. Additionally, only a small number of workers received goggles to protect their eyes from latex and bark which falls from the trees. When I asked workers about the goggles everyone laughed. They showed me the goggles which were given to only a few workers and they were completely scratched. All of the workers I asked about the goggles said they they were useless because they could not see properly through the goggles and it hurt their vision.
As a result of not having safety equipment, many workers are injured on the job. I spoke with a worker who had been a Firestone rubber tapper since 1984. Recently, a piece of bark fell in his eye while he was working, leaving him blind in one eye. He was then fired by Firestone and according the company policy, he was forced to leave his housing within 15 days or he would be forcibly evicted. So, he built a small shack next to his old house and tries to clean his friends' houses to get some small amounts of money. This story summed up for me Firestone's lack of concern for workers. A similar case was documented by the BBC here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/crossing_continents/6103540.stm.
This story also brings us to the issue of housing. Workers live in tiny one-room shacks without running water or electricity. The photo above depicts the outdoor latrines workers use. There are about 12-14 families using each individual toilet. Meanwhile, managers live in huge houses with satellites, air conditioning, running water, electricity and indoor toilets. They even have a country club with a massive golf course and tennis courts. So, while rubber tappers and their families are cramped into one-room huts, managers are living quite comfortably. We even saw the large guest house on the well-paved road for international visitors like Firestone Natural Rubber CEO Dan Adomitis and Bridgestone Americas CEO Mark Emkes.
A rubber tapper's house.
A manager's house.
The staff club where managers play golf and tennis and watch satellite tv.
Unfortunately, I don't have enough space here to document all of the abuses that workers face on the plantation, but it is overwhelmingly clear upon visiting that Firestone's public relations materials do NOT match up with reality.
Despite facing exploitation for over 82 years, the workers are determined to fight for their rights. The first independent, democratic union elections on the plantation took place in July 2007. The new union leaders of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union (FAWUL) had to fight (and go on a two week strike) until late December 2007 in order to get official recognition for the new union leaders. Now, the new union has an historic opportunity to negotiate directly with Firestone management to change their working conditions through establishing a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). On February 22nd, workers presented their new proposed CBA to Firestone management, but so far the management has not yet responded. The critical issue currently facing the union and the workers is the get Firestone to sit down with them and negotiate. Every single worker I spoke with on the plantation had great hope that the new union would finally bring positive changes in their lives.
As consumers in the United States, we need to put pressure on this U.S.-based tire manufacturer to negotiate in good faith with the Firestone union in Liberia. Please keep checking the ILRF website and the Stop Firestone website in the coming weeks for ways to take action. We have had amazing successes so far in holding Firestone accountable and this is a critical moment to consolidate our past victories! More than ever, you need you to make your voice heard to Firestone.
So, what do you think about Firestone's plantation in Liberia? What can we do in the U.S. to show solidarity with the workers in Liberia? Post your ideas, reflections and questions below.