December 6, 2005

Workers talk of hardship at Liberia’s Firestone

By Katharine Houreld

MONROVIA, Liberia (Reuters) - With his ragged child's
overalls and 4-foot frame, 11-year-old Zachariah does not look
like a typical plantation laborer.

But every morning he is not in school, the Liberian child
gets up at dawn to help his father work on the Firestone rubber
plantation so their family of eight can afford one meal a day.

"He doesn't want to go into the bush, but if he doesn't
come I can't do my job," said his father Alysious. "Sometimes
my wife will come too, but then it is hard to care for the
other children."

Alysious' shoulders bear dark calluses from carrying heavy
buckets of latex, the milky tree sap used to make rubber.

Like all the workers on the Japanese-owned tire maker's
plantation, Alysious must tap latex from 600 to 900 trees per
day and prepare an equal number for the next day's harvest.

Even if they work from dawn until after dark, workers say
they do not have enough time to complete the task and are
forced either to employ someone or use their wives and children
as unpaid labor.

The International Labor Rights Fund, a non-profit group
promoting fair working practices, filed a lawsuit against
Firestone in California this month alleging that poor
conditions and pay on the plantation amounted to virtual
slavery -- allegations the company denies.

"The plantation workers are stripped of rights, they are
isolated, they are at the mercy of Firestone for everything
from food to lodging," the lawsuit said.

"They risk expulsion and certain starvation if they raise
even minor complaints, and the company makes willful use of
this situation to exploit these workers."


Dan Adomitis, head of Firestone Natural Rubber Company, the
firm's Liberian operation, has described the allegations as

"This is a country coming out of 15 years of civil war,
with an unemployment rate of 85 percent," he said, adding that
the company refused to hire minors.

"We employ 7,000 people every day. Our health clinics see
9,000 people every day, and we are educating 7,000 children. I
think that (lawsuit) is totally uninformed."

In a country where most people live on less than $1 a day,
Firestone's daily wage of $3.19 is above average. The company
points out that healthcare and schooling provided for workers'
children is free.

But the employees tell a different story. Their payslips
show over a third of their wages go in deductions, some for a
union they believe panders to the management.

Despite repeated requests to withdraw from the union,
workers complain that dues are automatically deducted. They say
the union, which Firestone treats as their sole representative,
compromises on key issues such as safety equipment.

The company school for the laborers' children has
inadequate resources and there are 80 to 90 children to a

"Children have to buy their own chair," exclaimed one man,
adding that one chair with an armrest for writing cost around
$400 Liberian dollars -- about two days' wages.

In the Firestone settlement where Alysious and his children
live, the houses are mildewed hovels. A pungent green leak runs
from the latrine into the ground near the well.

Alysious says his children get sick from drinking the
water: The oldest died after developing diarrhea and the
youngest is sick. The children all have prominent ribs and
swollen stomachs, telltale signs of malnutrition.

"In my 22 years of working in corporate accountability
issues, I've never seen a situation so extreme as the
conditions on the Firestone plantation," said Terry
Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Fund.

"There are thousands of children working on that plantation
and thousands of adults who have been trapped there their
entire lives," Collingsworth said.


The workers' plight is not unique. Liberia's infrastructure
was shattered so badly by the civil war that there has been no
electricity or running water for over a decade.

The conflict ended two years ago, but few people have jobs.
On the streets of Monrovia, young girls sell their bodies for
less than $1 a time to earn money to go to school.

Liberians hope new leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who became
Africa's first elected female president last month with a
mandate to tackle graft and restore basic services, will help
restart an economy that was once the envy of West Africa.

Like many Liberians, Alysious' family lack even basic
identity documents, a result of the destruction of government
administration systems during the war.

Since Alysious' children do not have cards identifying them
as the dependents of a Firestone worker, they cannot access the
free school or the clinic the company is busy refurbishing.

Instead, their father pays for a private school nearby and
they scrimp on food, hoping their education will give them a
better future.

Alysious himself has worked his whole life, through
childhood, war and bereavement.

He labored unpaid alongside his father as a boy and finally
as a full-time Firestone employee, working every Sunday, every
holiday except Christmas and every spare moment to maximize his

Yet he cannot afford beds for his children or food to stop
their stomachs growling.

"This job is very hard: no money, no good facilities,"
Alysious said, his scarred hand resting softly on his son's
head. "But maybe they learn something for tomorrow. They will
do a different job, God willing."