March 27, 2010: 'Resource-cursed' Liberia Struggles in Firestone's Stronghold

Publish Date: 
Wednesday, July 25, 2012

'Resource-cursed' Liberia Struggles in Firestone's Stronghold

March 23, 2010 | Monique Marie DeJong

Earlier this month Liberian environmental justice lawyer Alfred Lahai Brownell led a briefing on Bridgestone/Firestone's continued violations of child rights and environmental destruction. Brownell is president and founder of The Association of Environmental Lawyers of Liberia (Green Advocates). He is a prominent human rights lawyer and activist who has invested "tireless efforts to protect Liberia's forests," said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). Along with IPS, the briefing was hosted by International Labor Rights Forum and Africa Environmental Watch. As the leading lawyer on case the against Firestone, Brownell's research work with plantation workers influenced an Alien Tort Claims Act case filed against Firestone in the United States.

International Rights Advocates (IRAdvocates) filed a lawsuit in November 2005 on behalf of adults and children who work and live on Firestone Plantation in Liberia. The suit alleges that Firestone and other affiliated companies forced workers to meet impossible quotas and used unlawful child labor. On June 26, 2007, the judge denied Firestone's motion to dismiss and allowed this case to move forward to trial only on child labor claims. Unfortunately, now that the lawsuit is no longer a class action, the names of the children must be made public. The next court date is scheduled for February 2011 in Indiana.

"Liberia is resource-cursed," said Brownell. In 1926 the Firestone Natural Rubber Co., a subsidiary of Bridgestone/Firestone, began planting rubber trees and operating a plantation in Harbel, Liberia. For eight decades, it has been the country's largest investor, with an overwhelming influence on the economic, political, and social structure. "Labor laws are written by Firestone. That's how influential they are.... In eight decades, nothing has changed," said Brownell, comparing Firestone's 26-billion-dollar investment in Liberia to the country's GDP of an estimated $826 million in 2009. According to Firestone Natural Rubber Co., it operates the world's largest rubber tree plantation in Liberia, covering 120,000 acres. In 2008, Dan Adomitis, president of the Firestone Natural Rubber Co., stated in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times,

"Firestone Natural Rubber has a zero-tolerance policy against child labor. Our policy of hiring only workers who are at least 18 years of age actually exceeds the Liberian labor law requirements by two years."

But a recent report indicates that child labor is still present on rubber plantations.

Last week, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor issued its 2009 Annual Report on Human Rights, and the Country Report on Liberia notes,

"The law prohibits the employment and apprenticeship of children under the age of 16 during school hours, however, child labor was widespread in almost every economic sector.... During the year, there were reports that children were tapping rubber at smaller plantations and private farms.... There were no government programs to prevent child labor or to remove children from such labor, however, international NGOs continued to work to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by withdrawing children from hazardous work and putting at-risk children in school."

boys washing latex © Green Advocates

Firestone operates a swath of land in Harbel, and "they have made efforts to clean up their act somewhat [in Harbel]; however, they still rely on small-scale suppliers from around the country to source their raw rubber material, and this is where the bulk of labor rights abuses, including child labor, are found," said a source at the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), who also attended the Firestone briefing.

Firestone's dominion over Liberia even hinders efforts made by NGOs. In 2005, the DOL awarded the International Rescue Committee $6,299,979 for its CYCLE Initiative (Countering Youth and Child Labor through Education in Sierra Leone and Liberia). Both former technical advisor Lili-Marguerite Stern and a source at CYCLE Initiative allege that during a meeting in 2006 at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Dr. Alfreda Meyers, who was the political-economic counselor of the Embassy at the time, stated that CYCLE Initiative was prohibited from targeting Firestone-essentially eliminating children in the rubber sector as beneficiaries of the program.

Despite being restricted from the rubber sector, "The project was a tremendously successful one, which benefited tens of thousands of children in really difficult circumstances in both Sierra Leone and Liberia," says Stern and her analysis was confirmed by an independent final evaluation of the project carried out by Dr. Lou Witherite and Macro International in November 2009. Other worst forms of child labor in Liberia CYCLE Initiative targeted include former child soldiers, prostitution, stone crushing, and sand quarrying. According to the State Department, the program resulted in 29,890 children being withdrawn or prevented from exploitative child labor in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Firestone has also made attempts to thwart workers' voices from being heard. For years, Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) has represented Firestone plantation workers, but until 2007 the union, also known as the "company union", did not represent workers' concerns. Firestone had control over previous union leaders, because it had its own union management company and chose its own union leaders. "We began going underground and created shadow unions, which almost paralyzed the corporation," Brownell said. Firestone reluctantly agreed to an open election for union leaders, and aggrieved workers began organizing on the plantations. In a groundbreaking election in July 2007, workers at last chose a democratically elected union leader. But, as Brownell reminded us at the briefing, much remains to be done.

What can we do to strengthen the democratic institutions of Liberia? The country needs more government commitment and enforcement of laws, as well as more investment in social justice organizations. As part of corporate culture, because of consumer uproar in recent years, Firestone has made "cosmetic but not comprehensive changes" in addressing labor and environmental issues, said Brownell. "Corporations must become an ambassador, not just a profiteer."

To see video "Firestone and Child Labor in Liberia" in original publication, click here.