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 Tire and 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 5am 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 century or so 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 nonhuman 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, then led by its founder Harvey Firestone, 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. The agreement was surrounded by controversy as well: after its approval by the legislature, the corporation added a clause that mandated that Liberia would accept a $5 million loan from Harvey Firestone, a plan against which the Liberian Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, and local activists protested. As well as drawing on support from the US State Department, the company established a subsidiary to handle the loan separately in order to sidestep the resistance – one of many subsidiaries that would be established to handle multiple dimensions of the corporation’s business in Liberia.
Since then, the company has continued to exploit the country – especially through avoiding taxes and abusing human rights standards in its chase for profits. As a striking example of the asymmetry of the relationship between country and corporation, in 1951, the profits retained by Firestone-Liberia after taxes were paid to the Liberian government still amounted to three times the total income of the Liberian treasury for the same year. This asymmetry was also revealed in the many tax exemptions granted to and exploited by the company. Throughout its history in Liberia, Firestone has muscled its way into gaining long tax holidays; long exemption periods of import and export duties; special tax tariffs; and large tax deductible items in cases where it was liable to taxes.
In 2005, Liberia’s transitional government signed another concession agreement for an extra 37 years of rubber slavery, despite having 20 years remaining on the original contract. Besides the question of whether the transitional government had the authority to sign the contract, the revised agreement ensured that the corporation’s exploitative privileges remained entrenched. It not only allows Firestone to set the price of rubber in the context of its own contract, thus creating the conditions that could enable transfer pricing and allow the company control over the amount of taxable income, but also sets the benchmark for all rubber in Liberia. The government does not even have an equity share in the investment, so that taxes and royalties are its only financial benefit. Rubber is Liberia’s largest export, and Firestone its largest international corporate exploiter, I mean employer, to date.
In March 2007, the Firestone Rubber Company, a subsidiary of the Japan-based Bridgestone Corporation, won the Public Eye Global Award 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 labor 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 labor 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 labor 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 Bridgestone 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 Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a member of the Stop Firestone Campaign, which is an advocacy coalition launched in 2005 to highlight Firestone’s exploitative undermining of Liberian labor laws. The 35 plaintiffs either have been or are currently child laborers 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:
- provide workers with basic rights, including a living wage and the freedom of association;
- end all child and forced labor and assign achievable quotas;
- adopt health and safety standards; stop exposing workers to toxic compounds and chemicals;
- improve housing, schools, and health care centers to provide safe and comfortable facilities;
- ensure public disclosure of revenue and all types of foreign investment contracts;
- stop releasing chemicals into the environment and redresses all environmental damage; and
- publicly disclose the identity and quantity of all toxic compounds it releases or transports.
Liberia’s Minister of Labor, 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.
Take action now!
• For more information on the Stop Firestone Campaign, visit www.stopfirestone.org.
• Check out the STOP Firestone student action kit and bring the campaign to your campus!
• Visit the Stop Firestone YouTube channel!
• Listen to Robtel Pailey’s Pambazuka News podcast with Ezekiel Pajibo and Kofi Woods about the role of Firestone Rubber Company in Liberia.
• Watch the “Slaves of Firestone” photo essay.
• Read more about the history of Firestone in Liberia from an essay by Carl Patrick Burrowes.
• Read a report on Firestone from the Liberian Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU).
Liberian native Robtel Neajai Pailey is a graduate of Howard and Oxford universities. Excerpts of this editorial were originally published in Pambazuka News, the authoritative social justice e-newsletter for Africa.