From the Editor’s Keyboard

Slavery ain’t dead, it’s manufactured in Liberia’s rubber

2 May 2007 at 11:18 | 454 views

While England celebrates its 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, plantation workers in Liberia are trapped in a time warp of monumental proportions. They exist in the parallel universe of multinational corporate checkmate, where the prize goes to the highest exploiter. Robtel Neajai Pailey exposes the plantations of Firestone Rubber Company in Liberia.

By Robtel Neajai Pailey.

Emmanuel B. is 30, a slender five foot three, and a slave whose piercing brown eyes tell unspeakable truths. He’s not the kind of slave we’ve seen in the collective imagination of 19th century plantations in the deep South of the United States. No, Emmanuel is a modern slave in 21st century post-conflict Liberia, and Firestone Rubber Company his unyielding master.

Like many workers on Firestone’s largest rubber plantation, Emmanuel was born in Harbel, has lived in Harbel all his life, and will most likely waste away in Harbel. Previously a student in Gbarnga, Emmanuel has ambitions to return to school, but those are pie in the sky dreams considering his family has no means of supporting him. As Westerners drive around in their heavy-duty SUVs propelled by another type of black gold-Firestone tires-Emmanuel wakes up at the crack of dawn to tap raw latex from 800 rubber trees daily. His clothes are tattered, and his shoulders covered in red puss-infected blisters from carrying buckets full of raw latex suspended from an iron pole to the Firestone processing plant two miles from his tapping site. For Emmanuel and his fellow tappers, a 5 a.m. start is the only means of filling their daily quota. Some have even begun to use their children to complete the herculean task.

Emmanuel sat perched like a statue, surrounded by green shrubbery and tall eerie splotched rubber trees one afternoon last December. He was taking a break, and had just finished tapping a record 800 trees when I spotted him while driving on a winding road on the Firestone plantation. He was gracious enough to demonstrate what a tapper does from sun-up to mid-morning. With a pitchfork suspended in the air, Emmanuel extended his long wiry arms to ease the raw latex out of the trees and into small red cups that catch the white liquid. The drip drip drip of the white coated liquid was almost as laborious to witness as Emmanuel’s daily task...another 799 trees to go and only five hours left. If workers don’t fill their quotas, their wages are reduced by half.

I visited the Firestone Rubber plantation for the very first time in December 2006 while on a research fact-finding mission for my dissertation. I decided to take a break from high browed academic work, and visit the sprawling modern day encampment I had heard so many horror stories about. It’s what I imagined the South to look like during the centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, with the hustle bustle activity of plantation life and the accompanying strokes of exploitation. As my brother-in-law, Christopher Pabai, and I pulled into the one million acre-and constantly expanding-plantation, we were welcomed by an ungodly stench, a stench I can only compare to the smell of rotten cheese. Not just ordinary rotten cheese, but the kind that has been drenched in burning oil, steamrolled on a conveyor belt, and neatly packaged for non-human consumption. That’s what raw latex smells like when it’s being processed. Rather than wearing masks to protect their noses from the assault, the plantation workers ingest the foul stench day in and day out. It took all my willpower not to retch all over Firestone’s perfectly manicured lawn or lush green golf course that senior management frequents while on hiatus from their back-breaking overseeing.

Believe it or not, the foul stench is the least of the workers’ worries.

While England celebrates its 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, plantation workers in Liberia are trapped in a time warp of monumental proportions. They exist in the parallel universe of multinational corporate checkmate, where the prize goes to the highest exploiter. Firestone has been playing the chess pieces of Liberia’s rubber slaves since the company signed a concession agreement with the Liberian government in 1926 to lease one million acres of land for six cents per acre-an abominable exchange given the astronomical dividends garnered from rubber sales then and now. In 2005, Liberia’s transitional government signed another concession agreement for an extra 37 years of rubber slavery. Rubber is Liberia’s largest export, and Firestone its largest international corporate exploiter, I mean employer, to date. The country and its people have paid a high price for the asymmetrical relationship.

In March 2007, the Firestone Rubber Company, a subsidiary of the Japan-based Bridgestone Corporation, won the Public Eye Global Ward for its social and ecological sins which demonstrate the shady side of pure profit-oriented globalization. The award was bestowed upon Firestone precisely because of the slave-like conditions on the plantation in Liberia. Workers live in dilapidated mud huts and are forced to seek the aid of their children in the strenuous and dangerous task of extracting latex from rubber trees. The deliberate and strategic use of children is against international laws including ILO Conventions, American and Liberian labour laws.

Since the plantation opened in 1926, company housing, mainly single room mud huts with no electricity, running water, or toilet facilities, has never been refurbished and updated to modern safety standards. Firestone’s plantation workers and their children toil under the same slave-like conditions they have endured for the past 80 years. The children’s labour usually includes cutting trees with sharp tools, applying pesticides by hand, and hauling two buckets on a pole, each filled with more than 30 kg of latex. Every day, these child laborers have to work long hours and are thus denied the right to basic education. Access to the company run schools is further impeded as parents must present a costly birth certificate in order to register their children.

Violation of child labour laws is only one among a long list of indictments against Firestone. According to Friends of the Earth USA, discharge from the company’s rubber processing plant has contaminated the adjacent Farmington River and other waterways, killing once vibrant ecosystems and polluting communities that depend on river water for drinking, bathing, and fishing. Furthermore, plantation workers are exposed to toxic chemicals and compounds on a daily basis while tapping. The merciless exploitation of Liberia’s people and natural resources by Firestone is directly linked to the nation’s impoverishment as the raw materials produced in Liberia are sent elsewhere for processing, thereby shutting out the possibility of added value. If a processing plant is built in Liberia, it could revolutionize the way rubber is used within a continent in dire need of manufactured goods such as condoms in the heyday of Bush’s conservative AIDS funding policies.

Clear violations of the law prompted a legal complaint filed in November 2005 against Bridgestone Corporation and Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, LLC by the International labour Rights Fund (ILRF), a member of the Stop Firestone Campaign which is an advocacy coalition launched in 2005 to highlight Firestone’s exploitative undermining of Liberian labour laws. The 35 plaintiffs either have been or are currently child labourers on the company’s rubber plantation in Liberia. They describe their lives as “trapped in poverty and coercion.” The plaintiffs have brought their case to a U.S. court since Liberia’s legal system eroded during 15 + years of civil war and strife. The case is currently ongoing.

The ILRF, along with its Stop Firestone Coalition partners, demands that Firestone:
- provides workers with basic rights, including a living wage and the freedom of association;
- ends all child and forced labour and assigns achievable quotas;
- adopts health and safety standards; stops exposing workers to toxic compounds and chemicals;
- improves housing, schools, and health care centres to provide safe and comfortable facilities;
- ensures public disclosure of revenue and all types of foreign investment contracts;
- stops releasing chemicals into the environment and redresses all environmental damage; and
- publicly discloses the identity and quantity of all toxic compounds that it releases or transports.

Liberia’s Minister of Labour, Kofi Woods, a long-time human rights activist/lawyer and a major catalyst for the Stop Firestone Campaign, has been in rounds of renegotiation sessions with Firestone representatives recently in Washington, D.C. Because of his list of demands-which are reminiscent of the Stop Firestone Coalition demands-Firestone representatives stormed out of the meetings in March 2007. Go figure. Woods and his cohorts are what I imagine African legislators should be like, uncompromising and unyielding when it comes to corporate social and ethical responsibility. Liberia’s post-conflict reconstruction agenda will be null and void without a reconfiguration of the concession agreement with Firestone. After all, any post-war scheme involves a drastic revving up of the national economy, and given Firestone’s economic entrenchment in Liberia, it will need to refashion how it deals with Liberian workers, thereby increasing employee profit margins.

History challenges us to stay on a forward moving dialectic of change. The Firestone example shows us that an ironic distortion of that dialectic is taking place right under our noses. Slavery ain’t dead, it’s manufactured in the rubber we use daily. We owe it to Emmanuel and his comrades on the Firestone Rubber plantation to change the course of history, to make a clean break from modern-day slavery and its peculiar 21st century manifestations. We owe it to ourselves.

* Liberian native Robtel Neajai Pailey (photo) is a graduate student at the University of Oxford, and a multi-media producer for Fahamu/Pambazuka News.

Source: Pambazuka News.