Liberian rubber workers win union

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In a historic victory for labor in Africa, Liberian rubber workers signed an agreement with Bridgestone/Firestone Company in mid-August securing improved working and living conditions.

The new contract follows decades of struggle by the rubber workers for an independent and democratic labor union. In July 2007, the company-controlled union was defeated in elections certified by observers from the United Steelworkers (USW) and the AFL-CIO. The two U.S. unions provided vital support to the new Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL).

Rubber tappers, who collect latex from rubber trees on Bridgestone/Firestone plantations, won a 24 percent wage increase and a 20 percent reduction in their daily collection quota. They will also be provided with transportation to bring the latex to weighing stations. As the AFL-CIO noted on its blog, rubber tappers used to have to walk long distances to the stations carrying 150 pounds of latex on their backs.

The poor working conditions were publicized over the past several years by various labor and human rights organizations. In November 2005, a lawsuit filed in U.S. federal court by the International Labor Rights Forum alleged the company employed child and slave labor on its Liberian plantations. It also claimed plantation housing lacked toilets, running water and electricity. The lawsuit alleged the daily quota of tapping nearly 750 trees meant rubber workers had to enlist their families, including small children, to work “dawn to dusk.” The Japan-based company, with North American headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., denied the accusations.

The following year the United Nations charged Bridgestone/Firestone with buying rubber from plantations operated by ex-combatants from Liberia’s 14-year civil war. According to a BBC article, the UN said workers on those plantations were treated like slaves.

Liberia’s civil war ended in 2003 and the nation voted for Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in democratic elections two years later. Firestone has operated in Liberia since 1926. Today it employs about 4,000 workers in the West African country.

The solidarity shown by the USW and AFL-CIO is especially noteworthy as unions increasingly coordinate their efforts across national boundaries. The USW represents Bridgestone/Firestone workers in the U.S. and along with the AFL-CIO conducted training workshops and educational programs for the rubber workers.

Even after the 2007 union election, Bridgestone/Firestone refused to deal with FAWUL. According to a USW press release, “Workers were violently repressed during strike actions which were initiated to win recognition of the results.” The press release continues, “Throughout a long and difficult process, FAWUL worked closely with the USW, initiating programs to build communications and solidarity within the union and to keep pressure on the company to respect workers rights.” Facing a persistent, united union, Bridgestone/Firestone was forced to negotiate the agreement with FAWUL.

USW President Leo Gerard proclaimed the pact “a crucial victory in the global fight for workers’ rights. These brave workers stood up to a powerful transnational corporation and declared that they will no longer be treated like second class citizens or indentured servants.”

His counterpart in FAWUL, Austin Natee, declared, “Our victory is shared with our brothers and sisters in the USW who provided vital solidarity and support every step of the way.”

On a continent where many governments are so eager for foreign capital they turn a blind eye to the exploitation of their citizens, the Liberian rubber workers’ agreement is an important precedent. Rubber tapping is not the only industry in Africa dominated by transnational corporations accused of using slave and child labor. The International Labor Rights Forum also filed cases against Nestlé and other companies for their involvement in the forced labor of children in cultivating and harvesting of cocoa beans, the primary ingredient in chocolate.

dlaumann @memphis.edu