Liberia is rich in natural resources and Africa’s largest producer of natural rubber. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries. Liberia’s impoverishment is directly related to the wealth generated from its natural resources; wealth that because of a history of inequality and exploitation benefits multinational corporations and some wealthy Liberians at the expense of the citizens of Liberia. However, many Liberians, along with international allies, are actively resisting this unjust system.
On top of the basic exploitation of natural resources and wealth, some multinational corporations that operate there have been accused of human rights abuses (including child labor), environmental exploitation and of taking advantage of the inability or disinterest of previous Liberian governments to monitor its activities.
One of these corporations, Firestone Natural Rubber Company a subsidiary of the Japanese company Bridgestone Americas Holding, Inc., has experienced increased international scrutiny for exploiting the people and natural environment of Liberia since May of 2005 and the publishing of a groundbreaking report that documented Firestone’s exploits in this West African nation. The report entitled “Firestone: The Mark Of Slavery” was produced by Liberian based civil society organization, Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU), and exposed the dire working and living conditions of the bulk of the company’s Liberian based labor force.
That report and the ensuing outcry launched an international coalition of Liberian and U.S. based labor rights, grassroots, human rights, and environmental organizations who came together to stop the exploitation. Aptly named, the Stop Firestone Coalition, has spent the last eighteen months documenting the history and abuses of The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company.
In 1926, U.S.—based rubber manufacturer Firestone negotiated a 99—year lease for concessions on one million acres in Liberia and formed the Firestone Rubber Plantation. In 1988 Japanese tire manufacturer Bridgestone Corporation purchased The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company creating Bridgestone/Firestone North American. Bridgestone/Firestone North American has become the largest tire and rubber company in the world; its automobile tires are ubiquitous on every continent. To date Firestone’s rubber plantation occupies a large percentage of Liberia’s land mass and was, as a result, for a time responsible for more than half the tax revenue in the country.
Harbel City is home to the Firestone rubber-processing factory. There, in a one-acre fenced-off field, low-grade rubber tapped from the plantation’s trees is openly dumped only 200 meters from the Firestone Natural Rubber Company’s Liberian company headquarters into the Farmington River. The lack of employment for unskilled laborers in Liberia, and the inability of the Liberian government, past and present, to monitor the activities of the Company have given rise to the abuse of rubber workers as well as exploitive living conditions.
Firestone’s officially 14,000-person Liberian workforce is comprised mostly (approximately 70%) of rubber tappers who are largely illiterate and unskilled labors. In November 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of former child laborers and their children. The workers’ suit charges Firestone with employing forced labor, and describes the miserable and inhumane treatment they and their children must endure in their daily struggle for survival.
Tappers and their children are held in virtual bondage, isolated from the world on a million—acre plantation and dependent on Firestone for everything from wages to lodging to food and medicine, all of which are desperately inadequate. To note a particularly egregious example, Bridgestone/Firestone housing has not been renovated since its construction in 1926. Most of the houses do not include running water or indoor toilets.
In May 2006, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) released a report, “Human Rights in Liberia’s Rubber Plantations: Tapping into the Future” addressed the horrid conditions that Firestone workers endure. In order to meet the daily quota of approximately 650 trees per day, each tapper would have to work at least twenty-one hours a day if tapping one tree takes them only 1.7 minutes from start to finish to tap a tree. If, for example, it took a worker five minutes each to tap trees it would take them almost three full days to complete one day’s quota. As Bridgestone/Firestone North American management does not enforce its child labor policy but does enforce its quotas, parents often bring their children to work in order to meet the daily quotas and garner a barely livable wage. Instead of attending school, these children often work for 10 to 12 hours a day without proper diets and must carry heavy buckets of rubber latex treated with toxic pesticides.
Liberia-based Green Advocates has joined SAMFU in documenting Bridgestone/ Firestone’s abuses and have confirmed the habitual release of suspected toxins into the environment and the Farmington River as well as the exposure of plantation workers to compounds and chemicals that are internationally recognized as toxic and environmentally damaging.
Bridgestone/ Firestone’s dumping in the Farmington River is polluting Liberian’s waterways and is hazardous to the communities that live along the river; depending on it for fishing, bathing, and drinking water. Bridgestone/ Firestone’s actions have made a once vibrant ecosystem and river way into one that is nearly dead; catfish seem to be the only life form that have survived the harsh chemicals drained into the river.
The river around the rubber plantation is polluted with the effluence from the factory that spews out chemicals 24-hours a day, seven days a week. One polluted river seven miles inland supplies numerous villages on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. “No fishing” signs are placed all around the rivers and the communities that depend on the rivers for their survival are neglected and ignored. The Firestone tappers have one hand pump per community but when water levels drop during the rainy season they are forced to drink water from the nearby rivers and creaks.
Bridgestone/ Firestone has admitted that they use chemicals to coagulate and preserve latex as well as to increase the productive capacity of rubber trees but maintain that they are in compliance with Liberia’s environmental laws. Despite their assertions it is plainly apparent that there is no waste management or disposal system in place to protect Liberia’s waterways, soil, and other natural resources from the company’s dumping. To date Bridgestone/ Firestone has refused to publicly disclose the identity and quantity of all toxic compounds and chemicals that it releases into the environment or that it transports. Firestone has failed to take responsibility for this situation and follow international law that stipulates that corporations must supply modern tools to protect workers on the job from coming into contact with harmful chemicals.
Since early 2005 Save Our Future Foundation, Green Advocates, and the International Labor Rights Fund have been joined by Liberian and U.S. based non-governmental organizations and have launched the Stop Firestone campaign which is dedicated to ending the exploitation of Liberia’s land, children, and workers.
They have been joined by the Institute for Policy Studies, Friends of the Earth-US, the Center for Democratic Empowerment, TransAfrica Forum, Rainbow PUSH, the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights and other organizations that are working to educated the U.S. public and draw greater international attention to the issues effecting Liberia’s workers and the country’s environmental health.
To officially launch the Stop Firestone Campaign, these organizations chose July 26—Liberia’s Independence Day—to mark the beginning of the end of the 80 years of Firestone’s exploitation of Liberia and her people.
The coalition called on its members and people across the U.S. to come together as concerned consumers and take action as Firestone Complete Auto Care retail locations in 41 states from San Francisco, CA to Nashville, TN and Wheaton, MD. People bearing letters to store managers and to Firestone Rubber president Dan Adomitis expressed their dismay that they were, through their bicycle and car tires, a party to the exploitation of others.
In the coming months, the coalition will build on the success of the Day of Action to increase public awareness of Firestone’s abuses and pressure on the company to change its policies. We will be continuing our outreach to many constituencies including members of Congress, students, faith groups, unions, environmentalists, NASCAR fans, consumers and many more.
The Stop Firestone Campaign is part of a larger international movement for corporate reform. The company’s human rights and environmental abuses are related to the problem of corporate-led globalization which privileges profits for few over the lives of many. The coalition of groups, which was formed to challenge this model, is part of a counter-globalization movement that seeks to bring together people across boundaries to promote global justice. We hope that readers will join us in our continued efforts to hold Firestone accountable and will remember where the rubber really meets the road in Liberia.