Strike Continues at Firestone’s Liberia Plantation
Despite earlier reports that workers had gone back to work, one week into the strike company officials told Tyres & Accessories that while the industrial action “could end tomorrow it could also go on for weeks.” In an interview with T&A, Bridgestone Americas’ Dan MacDonald and Gert Meylemans (Bridgestone Europe) explained that the ongoing strike might mean there is disruption, but it also unlikely to have any long term or direct effects on prices.
Despite the plantation’s size (118,000 acres) the company representatives downplayed the effect the strike would have on the tyre market. “The majority of what is harvested is not block rubber, but liquid latex,” Dan MacDonald told Tyres & Accessories. Instead the Liberian plantation’s output is only said to make up 14 per cent of Bridgestone Americas’ and 1.2 per cent of the company’s worldwide demand. For now there is said to be significant quantities of the necessary raw materials in reserve. And the executives pointed out that the company ran other large plantations in places like Indonesia. Reserves and alternative sites aside, 5,800 striking workers is not good for any company.
Low levels of morale
“Workers of the Firestone Rubber Plantation Company are angry, discontented, desperate, and obsessed with a raw quest for better working conditions, better education for their children and increased wages,” Liberian journalist Gibson W Jerue wrote in the midst of the strike. Monrovia’s Analyst newspaper wrote that Firestone management sources are equally run-down, and described the strike as: “A 100 per cent paralysing force majeure that took management unawares despite a recent company public relation blitz that created the impression that all was well on the plantation.” According to the reports, workers are demanding a 37.5 per cent deduction from their salary is repaid – they claim Firestone has withheld and/or denied them this since 1992.
The Bridgestone/Firestone side of the story is somewhat different. From the company’s point of view the situation is difficult but not impossible. As far as wages are concerned, the management denies that there ever was a pay cut, explaining it as only a “currency adjustment.” Some years ago under Charles Taylor’s government Firestone was “mandated” to pay workers in US dollars. Some workers then (and obviously now) interpreted this as pay cut, but Firestone representatives are adamant that this move was in the best interests of both the workers and the company. The benefit of paying workers in US dollars is that all parties can avoid the effects of hyper-inflation (in recent times currency markets have seen the value of Liberian dollars vary by as much as 70 dollars against the US dollar). In fact Firestone counters claims that workers have received wage cuts by saying that it has actually consistently increased wages by as much as 16 per cent. Independent sources report that Firestone recently increased wages from US$3.19 to US$3.38 per day.
Another bone of contention is allegations of child and/or slave labour made by the Washingtion-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF). Firestone emphatically denies the reports of unfair labour practices and points to the employment agreement that all workers sign up to as evidence of this. This agreement includes strict policies against child labour. However, Firestone says, some workers have been known to bring their children to work in order to earn some extra money. And that’s why the company has sanctions – including dismissal – for any workers that are found to have broken their employment agreement.
With reference to working conditions, workers told the Analyst newspaper that in the past they used to tap 400 trees per day to complete a “task” (quota) but this task has increased by 250 trees which means each person has to tap 650 trees per day. For its part Firestone agrees that some workers harvest as many as 650 trees a day, but this is said to be dependent on what conditions the employees were working in. People working in hilly terrain for example are not expected to harvest as many trees.
At the time of going to press, Liberian workers had been on-strike for a week with no sign of the disruption coming to an end. But while workers complained against working hours, payment and conditions, Firestone continues to affirm that employees work fair hours (generally 06:00 to 14:00) and that it invests in its staff. And the $100 million dollars the company is planning to invest in worker housing, schools and hospital facilities is said to be proof of this. For the tyre and rubber business the question is rather, with natural rubber prices so high, how long can Firestone and its customers afford to wait for the situation to be resolved?