Tim Newman, Campaigns Director, International Labor Rights Forum
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has arrived in Liberia as part of her seven-nation tour of Africa. During her brief visit, Secretary Clinton focused her remarks on supporting the leadership of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as well as the role good governance and strong security forces play in ensuring a peaceful recovery from conflict. In addition to Sec. Clinton's visit to Liberia, a Congressional delegation led by Congressman Bobby Rush and including will visit Liberia (as well as Nigeria, Angola and South Africa) this weekend.
As readers of this blog know, we have tracked labor rights violations on the rubber plantation in Liberia owned by the Firestone tire company, the largest employer and foreign investor in Liberia. As Firestone's investment in Liberia has historically been a major part of US relations with the country, what can Sec. Clinton and the Congressional delegation do and say to ensure that the rights of workers and the environment are protected as part of Liberia's development process after years of conflict?
Today, Sec. Clinton said in Monrovia,
However, as the case of Firestone's investment in Liberia shows, trade and investment alone does not necessarily lead to a better future for workers and their families. As the final report of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently stated, Firestone's rubber plantation in Liberia was originally established using the forced labor of workers who were recruited from across the country. Many of the current workers are descendants of these original forced laborers. According to the report, the US government played an important role in negotiating the original agreement with the government of Liberia that brought in Firestone. This agreement gave Liberia pennies for the massive amount of land handed to Firestone and in exchange, also demanded that Liberia take a $5 million loan from the US to pay off outstanding foreign debt -- leading to a relationship of dependency. The report also alleges that when the international community was putting sanctions on the trade of various natural resources from Liberia during the civil war, the US government successfully argued on behalf of Firestone that rubber should not be sanctioned. The report also stated that Firestone paid millions of dollars to Charles Taylor throughout the war in Liberia. Meanwhile, the company's burdensome quota production system led workers to bring their children and wives to work with them in order to complete their daily tasks and receive their meager wages. Firestone is currently engaged in a legal battle in US courts due to it's long-standing use of child labor on it's rubber plantation in Liberia.
Firestone as an example of foreign investment in Liberia raises the question of how foreign investment contributes to development and a better life for ordinary Liberians. If Firestone's operations have been characterized for over 80 years by forced labor, the worst forms of child labor and environmental destruction that has poisoned communities and destroyed the rivers that have historically supported these communities, how have working Liberians benefited for this trade? Is this the future that the people of Liberia deserve? It is crucial that when US politicians visit Liberia and talk about the role trade and investment play in helping the country recover that they speak clearly about the kind of investment that is needed. If investment is going to contribute to broader development in the country, it has to conform to international standards of environmental and labor protection. Workers for foreign companies benefit from their work and build a better life for their families only when they can ensure that they receive fair pay for their work, have access to important benefits and services and work under safe working conditions, among other things. The way that workers ensure these standards are met is by having a voice at work -- usually through a democratic and independent trade union.
That is why visiting politicians should also visit the inspiring trade union activists in Liberia who are working every day to ensure that Liberia's economy works for all Liberians and that democracy exists throughout every level of society: from the Executive Mansion to the legislature to their workplaces. The Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) is exactly the kind of partner that the US should be looking for because they have fought against all the odds to ensure a better life for their children. Their struggle has inspired workers throughout Liberia and led to new organizing efforts across the country.
It's not just high-level politicians who have a role to play in supporting a system of trade based on economic justice. For those of us who are consumers and who live in the US, we can play our part by expressing our solidarity with FAWUL. Check out the Stop Firestone campaign website for ways to take action and stay tuned in the coming months for new ideas! FAWUL will soon begin negotiations on a new contract with Firestone and international support will help ensure that workers are able to win important improvements during these negotiations.
For more about what FAWUL is doing in Liberia, check out the inspiring video from United Steelworkers below.