Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
When Liberia finally emerged from years of civil war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to "promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation" and to investigate human rights violations that occurred. Last week, the TRC released its final report which is available online here. Throughout the report, the TRC mentions the role that Firestone has played historically in abusing human rights in Liberia and ultimately concludes that Firestone aided and abetted economic crimes.
The TRC report mentions the role that forced labor played in setting up Firestone's rubber plantation when the company first came to Liberia in the 1920's. As the report states,
The report goes on to show how elites in Liberia and the US government worked together to help Firestone secure an agreement with the Liberian government that allowed the company cheap access to the country's resources and also placed Firestone in a position of significant economic and political influence over Liberia:
The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, (Firestone) 1926 agreement was procured with the support of the US Government to tap Liberia’s significant rubber resources at terms very favorable to Firestone in exchange for a US$5m loan to settle Liberia’s overdue foreign debt. Liberia, under the agreement, leased a contested 1,000,000 acres of fertile, arable land for 99 years at a price of 6 cents per acre. Firestone, as a US interest, became a significant economic presence and employer in Liberia. (Page 109)
The power held by Firestone and the company's close relationship with the US government was exhibited during the civil war in Liberia. The TRC report highlights how Firestone was able to avoid sanctions on rubber that were applied to many other Liberian resources due to the role these exports played in fueling the conflict. Firestone won this debate by utilizing its close relationship with the US Government and by making significant financial contributions to Charles Taylor in exchange for protection on the plantation:
The report notes at least one instance of these security forces being used to attack Firestone workers:
More recently, Firestone workers have been physically attacked by any of the (at least) four security forces operating on the plantation during strikes in April and December of 2007. Both of these instances of violence occurred when the workers were organizing to hold their first ever free and fair union elections and to have their newly elected union leaders recognized by the company. In the coming months, workers will begin to negotiate a new contract with Firestone management and there is fear that security forces operating on the Firestone plantation may once again be used to suppress worker organizing.
While Firestone has spent a lot of money on public relations materials promoting itself as a "partner" with Liberia (their website says: "We have succeeded together and we have suffered together"), the TRC report leaves one wondering who Firestone's true partner in Liberia has been. From the use of forced labor in the company's early days in Liberia through payments to a leader who is on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity to the current exploitation of workers and the environment, it is time that people around the world join communities affected by Firestone in Liberia in demanding justice.