Firestone in Trouble Again in US Court for Practicing Slavery
Date of publication: November 22, 2005
Firestone, no doubt the largest rubber plantations in the world, is also regarded as the most stable investment in Liberia. Cultivated more than 70 years ago in what was then Marshall Territory for 99 years, Firestone has not only outlived most other European and U.S. investments in the country, but it has also provided employment to thousands of Liberians at any given time with many others receiving retirement and pension benefits, something which even critics say the government of Liberia, perhaps the largest employer is unable to do.
Besides providing employment to Liberians, Firestone is noted for providing health, primary education, and training opportunities to employees and their children. But critics say all of these are peanuts compared to what the company has been reaping from the country throughout its 79 years of operations in Liberia. They say the terms under which the Firestone concessionary agreement was negotiated are not in the interest of the country and those Liberians who appear to be benefiting from the company.
Recently before its 99-year agreement expires, Firestone renegotiated its concessionary agreement with the transitional government for close to 40 more years. It is not clear what prompted that move, but the Supreme Court of Liberia, acting on a Petition for the Writ of Prohibition, ordered the NTGL "not to execute any of the agreements pending the outcome of the conference." Now, the labour group, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), has taken Firestone's trouble further to the U.S. courts, this time, for practicing slavery. The Analyst's Staff Writer looks at the lawsuit from the perspective of the online News Today.
The International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), last Thursday, filed a federal lawsuit in the US state of California, alleging workers at Bridgestone's Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia toil in virtual slavery.
Firestone, which has operated a rubber plantation in Liberia since 1926, relies on a poverty stricken and often illiterate workforce to tap tons of raw latex from rubber trees using primitive tools and methods that expose them to dangerous pesticides and fertilizers, ILRF said in its complaint to the court.
Notwithstanding the magnitude of the allegations against the company which scores of human rights groups in the country have sought in the past to bring to national prominence without much success the leadership of the company seems nerved, perhaps being accustomed to lawsuits.
Dan Adomitis, the head of Firestone Natural Rubber Company, the unit that operates the Liberian operation, said the tire maker that only ship rubber out of Liberia and has no plan in the offing to make tires in Liberia will defend itself.
"This group has a long track record of filing and losing similar lawsuits against corporations," Adomitis said in a statement, referring to the labor rights group.
Describing the allegations by ILRF as outrageous and not supported by facts, Adomitis said the whole suit has more to do with generating headlines than with seeking justice.
"Firestone is doing more than any other private entity to invest in the rebuilding of Liberia in the aftermath of a decades-long war. We provide our (employees) in Liberia with stable jobs, housing, health care and free education," added Adomitis, who was named in the lawsuit.
He said Firestone's jobs are among the highest paying in Liberia, the employees are represented by a union and child labor is prohibited.
The ILRF, in September, sued retailer Wal-Mart Stores, alleging it has overlooked sweatshop conditions at factories in six countries. Whatever the outcome of that lawsuit is not is not known, but ILRF seems not perturbed.
"Firestone's Liberian workers cannot meet daily harvesting quotas without unpaid aid, requiring them to put their own children to work or face starvation," the fund said in the lawsuit filed in a federal court in California seeking class action status.
Practices differ little from when the plantation opened, with Firestone relying on forced labor, involuntary servitude, recklessness, negligence in hiring and supervision, unjust enrichment and unfair business practices, the group contends.
"The plantation workers are stripped of rights, they are isolated, they are at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to health care to education, they risk expulsion and certain starvation if they raise even minor complaints, and the company makes wilful use of this situation to exploit these workers as they have since 1926," the lawsuit claimed.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of workers and their children at the plantation under pseudonyms, names Japanese parent company Bridgestone, Bridgestone Americas Holding, Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire and other units as defendants.
Reports about the lawsuit did not say whether or not the Firestone workers' association in Liberia has any knowledge of the lawsuit. The Analyst was unable to contact association officials up to bedtime last night to ascertain their involvement in the lawsuit allegedly being filed in their behalf.
But it seems likely that the association will have interest in the outcome of the lawsuit given past reports of discontent amongst the workers, including pensioners who are complaining of unexplained cuts in tax from their benefits.
The action was brought in the United States because, according to the US State Department, the judicial system in Liberia is "largely dysfunctional" and suffering from the effects of a civil war, according to the lawsuit.
The 240 square-mile plantations has an official workforce of 6,000 and at least as many child laborers, the group contends, numbering a potential class of up to 4,000 official plantation workers and 10,000 child laborers, the News Today reports quoting the group said.
According to the group's complaint, each official worker of Firestone is required to deliver 450 pounds of latex per day to meet quotas, requiring them to work up to 14 hours per day and enlist others to help.
The group, though, did not say how much each labourer delivering the full quota is marked as daily wage, nor did it say what effect such level of labor and exposure to "dangerous" pesticides and fertilizers has on the health of the workers.
Besides, it said nothing about the housing conditions of the workers and about the quality of the education and health services the company offers to its employees.
It may be recalled that the Supreme Court of Liberia, early this month, issued a prohibition against the execution of the addendum to Firestone's 99-year contract pending the outcome of a conference the court scheduled to hold with Liberia's Attorney General and Justice Minister Kabinah A. Ja'neh on November 7, 2005.
The nature of the prohibition was not elaborated besides alluding to NTGL's short tenure, but according to a Supreme Court summons signed by Clerk of Court Martha G. Bryant, the action for prohibition was filed by six human rights and pro-democracy groups including the Green Advocates, CEDE, FIND, FOHRD, JPC, and LDW.
The respondents were NTGL represented by the ministries of Justice, Postal Affairs, and Mines, and the managing directors of NPA and TELECOM.
Cllr. Verdier could not be reached up to bedtime last night to give the outcome of the Supreme Court's conference on the company's contract, if the conference were ever held, that is.
But observers say if the high court slams the prohibition on the company, then there is no question that the California federal lawsuit is a double blow on the company.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dan Adomitis' claim that ILRF has a history of filing and losing court cases, will for now remain a heart-warmer for the Firestone Management.