Workers Organize at Firestone, Liberia’s ‘State Within a State’

Workers Organize at Firestone, Liberia’s ‘State Within a State’

Workers Organize at Firestone, Liberia’s ‘State Within a State’

Workers tapping rubber at the Firestone plantation in Liberia are struggling for better wages and working conditions—and pushing their employer to stop polluting the land and water they rely on.


Take the long drive southwest out of the capital on one of the only paved roads in Liberia, and eventually you’ll hit one of the country’s few remaining traffic signs, announcing a fork in the road. The arrow pointing to the right is labeled simply ‘"Airport." To the left: "Firestone."

Hang a left and in a few minutes you’ll be inside what the company’s website calls "the largest natural rubber plantation in the world." The airport actually started out as Firestone’s private landing strip, until FDR touched down and declared it would be an ideal rest stop for American planes on their way to the North African front. For years, Firestone has supplied the airport with all its electricity, free of charge.

Shortly before that fork in the road, if you don’t blink, you’ll glimpse the village of Smell-No-Taste. The name dates to the Second World War, when American GIs were busy carrying out FDR’s orders. "What they used to do," Edwin Cisco says, "was they used to prepare the meats, and the scents of the food would go all out. So the people said they would only smell the food," and here his colleague Austin Natee chimes in, "and they would not taste it." Both men crack up.

Austin and Edwin are officers of the newly independent Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), and they want a taste. After five months of negotiations, the union finally won a new contract on June 28. It’s the second contract FAWUL has won since Liberia settled into an exhausted peace in 2003. In interviews this past fall in Liberia, workers and activists recited a list of grievances, some of which go back decades: literally backbreaking quotas, meager wages, dismissal without cause, and atrocious housing, to say nothing of Firestone’s ongoing pollution. These days the company has roughly 5,000 tappers on the payroll, which makes it the second largest employer in a country with massive unemployment.

"Plantation" isn’t the word for Firestone. Think "state within a state." Firestone originally controlled one million acres—four percent of the country, or nearly 10 percent of arable land. The current government, under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, renegotiated the concession to encompass 100,000. The company runs the schools, provides housing and water and markets; it even operates the only hospital, one of the few in the country. The four access roads are guarded by a mix of officers from Liberia’s various security services, alongside Firestone’s private security force, occasionally shaking down drivers while ostensibly checking for illegal tappers. The plantation swallowed up whole villages when it was established.

If this state had a capital, it would be the city of Harbel (named for company founder Harvey Firestone and his wife, Idabelle). A school sits at a fork in the road, humming with children throughout the day; across the street are the dilapidated shacks many of the students call home (Firestone has been building new houses—which still lack bathrooms—but Austin and Edwin estimate that more than half of its official employees still live in the equivalent of shanty towns). In the center of all this is FAWUL’s headquarters, a small, nondescript one-storey building. Austin, the union’s president, maintains a sparse office at the back.

"We’re not here to fight to destroy the company," Edwin insists. "That’s not our objective. Y’understand? But they are not seeing it that way." FAWUL’s first contract drove wages up from $3.38 to $4.26 a day; the new contract provides for an additional 3.5 percent increase, about another fifteen cents. Firestone insists this wage doesn’t reflect the benefits enjoyed by its workers, arguing in a statement to The Nation that "None of these are factored into the daily wage. In fact, our lowest-paid workers earn more than many civil servants." But many tappers are forced to hire help to meet Firestone’s quota, and union officials report that the going rate for a bag of rice—enough to feed a family of five for three weeks—is $30 (that’s a below market price charged by Firestone). "Quite frankly, it’s not really enough," Austin said of that $4.26.

Edwin and Austin estimate that 75% of the tappers have been here for generations. The company’s "intention was to produce generation of tappers, to keep people working on the plantation," says Edwin. "Now, we don’t have a problem with that, to be very frank with you. We know that the trees have to be tapped. But what we saying is, improve the conditions. Tapping is skilled work. Once a man has a good living wage, a decent place to live, the man can tap."

Tapping is methodical, delicate work. The tapper scrapes a thin layer of bark from the Hevea tree, peeling it down and around the trunk. Cut too close and the tree will be wounded; fail to cut close enough and the tree won’t bleed enough latex. Older trees are wrapped with scars, and the tappers stretch to reach the untouched heights. Once the cut is made, the tapper guides the thin trickle of latex that seeps from the exposed cambium down to a small cup attached to the trunk.

Then they move on to the next tree, and the next, working row after row, hundreds of trees a day, while the latex slowly pools. Eventually they pour the cups into buckets, and then haul the 150-pound load about a mile over their shoulders to a collection station where the latex is consolidated and loaded on to trucks. Perhaps the most important gain in the new contract is the promise of a mechanized transport system to carry the latex to weigh stations. As the company doesn’t provide safety gear, most tappers work without it—no boots to protect them from snakebite, no goggles to shield their eyes from splinters or chemicals—but it’s the fact that the rubber is literally transported on the backs of the workers that outrages Austin and Edwin. The heavy loads can lead to hernias, which make it impossible for tappers to work, robbing them of their livelihood. "It is outdated," Austin says. "Animals tote it on the back. We’re not human beings."

It wasn’t always going to be like this. When Harvey Firestone Sr. first inked the deal for his rubber concession, he prophesized he’d put 350,000 people to work. "So far as I know, we are the only employers of African labor to establish the American working day," Harvey Sr. crowed. He imagined himself as a Henry Ford for Africa.

The Liberian elite had other ideas. They relied heavily on forced labor, and feared Firestone’s demand would leave them without workers to build roads or tend their farms. As historian Arthur Knoll noted (Knoll’s research on Firestone provides much of the detail that follows), wealthy Liberian rubber farmers even protested when Firestone considered raising wages. So the Liberian government stepped in to manage the labor supply, and pretty soon men were being marched hundreds of miles—without food and under armed guard—to the plantation. In the words of one of Firestone’s managers: "Of the first batch of 150 men I saw arrive twelve died within a week."

It was the US government that put Firestone on to Liberia in the first place. The State Department contacted Firestone in 1923 to inform him that if he was interested in setting up a plantation in Liberia, all it would take was a $2.5 to 5 million dollar loan from Firestone to the government of Liberia, and "Mr. Firestone could virtually be the Government."

Two-and-a-half years later, Firestone was ready to seal the deal. But the Liberian government balked at the loan. Firestone wanted the government to pledge its revenues to pay off the loan at a healthy 7 percent rate of return—2 percent higher than Liberia’s existing debt—and to make sure it paid he wanted Americans appointed by the United States president in charge of the government’s finances.

So Firestone presented Liberia with a now infamous Christmas gift: clause (K). Even though the concession agreement had ostensibly been settled, Firestone tacked on a clause declaring it wouldn’t be carried out unless Liberia accepted the loan. The Liberians resisted, but Frank Kellogg, the new US Secretary of State, let it be known in Monrovia that the State Department anticipated "with sympathetic interest the conclusion of the Firestone contracts," and made it clear that if the deal fell through, US funds for Liberia would be scarce in the future. For his part, Firestone fired off cables insisting it would be "Impossible [to] make loan unless Liberia finances are administered by parties making loan."

By September of 1925, the deal was done. Liberia used the cash to buy back bonds it had sold to England and France (among other creditors), curtailing their influence even as it dramatically expanded that of the US. The loan agreement gave American officials named by the US president control over much of the government’s budget, and even placed four US Army officers in charge of the notoriously brutal Liberian Frontier Force.

For a mere six cents per acre, Firestone now enjoyed near unlimited control over one million acres of Liberian soil. Within thirty years, the rent and taxes paid by Firestone to the Liberian government came to account for just short of 40 percent of the state’s total revenues. At its height in the 1960s, employment seems to have peaked at around 20,000, somewhat short of Firestone’s early projections. While Firestone’s lease was set to expire in 2025, the Sirleaf government renegotiated it in 2008. There were rumors the new agreement would last almost another century, but groups like Liberia’s Save My Future Foundation (SAMFU) protested. Firestone’s writ now runs until 2041.

"Firestone knows that if they sit and allow this period—between now and 2025—to be over, it is going to be a tough decision," says Robert Nyanh, a young program officer with SAMFU. "Because people will be thinking wise; a lot of things will have changed. So they do everything humanly possible and they arrange to see that before the contract comes to an end, they push it to another stage, and then it becomes an obligation on the government that is in power."

"This Type of Water Treatment System is Unparalleled in Liberia"

Back in 2005, people in Owensgrove, a small community inside the plantation, started getting sick. SAMFU accused Firestone of polluting the Farmington River, which local residents used for everything from washing clothes to fishing, from bathing to drinking water. Three years later, SAMFU released another report, charging Firestone had done little if anything to clean up the situation. Finally, Firestone took action.

Apparently, taking action meant diverting the waste elsewhere. While locals have begun to use the Farmington River again, elsewhere on the "plantation"—to be precise, in the small villages of Brown Town and Kpanyah- three people allegedly fell ill and died due to the pollution.

In a statement to The Nation, Christina Gaines, the company’s Director of Public Affairs, declared "Firestone fully believes it is in compliance with the Environmental Protection and Management Law of Liberia, as well as with its environmental commitments to the Government. We strongly disagree with any characterization to the contrary."

Austin remains unimpressed. "I’m telling you, the water has been polluted," he insists. "It was clean before… but the waste has polluted the whole place."

Some days the creek that runs near Brown Town and Kpanyah is black and still; silver streaks surface in the mud of the road nearby. Pictures can’t capture the stench. It reaches down into your stomach and sets it churning, digs into your guts and triggers all those fight or flight reflexes, and you know on a primal level that something is wrong here.

"I’m the third generation born of this plantation," Edwin declares. "My grandparents work[ed] here, my parents work[ed] here, I’m working here. My kids will come and work. So if we cannot secure a better future now for our people, and for our children, what’s going to happen tomorrow? We must insure that the farm is protected, because—I’ve always said this—this farm is our heritage."

Brown Town is a hardscrabble village of mud brick and zinc roofs and the rusting carcasses of old cars. At the tail end of the rainy season, the dirt road leading to the village is under a small moat of standing water. "This is a community that enjoys absolutely nothing from Firestone’s operation," says Robert Nyanh. "They have to walk miles away just to get drinking water." Tenneh Thomas was born here, but neither she nor her husband were ever able to find work with Firestone. Instead they scraped together a living fishing in a nearby creek and kept a small garden on its banks.

In February 2008, Tenneh became pregnant with her fourth child. It wasn’t long before she realized something was different this time: "I used to be feeling inside my stomach sharp sharp pain. There was something biting in me." As neither Tenneh nor her husband worked for Firestone, she was ineligible for treatment at the company hospital. Instead, that April she went to a small local clinic. As she didn’t have the money to pay for the results, she never found out exactly what the test revealed. She only knows the doctor asked her if she’d tried to abort her baby.

When Fatoumata was born later that year, half her right arm was missing, its fingers little more than stubs. She can’t crawl. She breaks out in sores. Liberians consistently describe Fatoumata’s arm as "amputated," a word that recalls the atrocities inflicted during the civil war. "I need support," Tenneh says. "To take care of her now is no small thing. I got to be near her. And they should take responsibility for this child."

Last October, a government commission confirmed that Firestone had polluted the creek. But the commission tested for only indicators of pollution, not actual toxic pollutants, and Firestone’s own consultants gave it a clean bill of health. In its statement, the company said, "Firestone Liberia’s multimillion-dollar water treatment facility processes water from its factory through equalization and clarification tanks and into constructed wetlands on the company’s property for natural, biological treatment…. Water quality improves with each step in this treatment process and is not harmful to humans or animals when it leaves the wetlands—the first point at which the water enters the stream running through local communities such as Kparnyah Town. This type of water treatment system is unparalleled in Liberia."

Quota Is King

"It’s clear that they should pay reparation to Liberia for what they have done," says SAMFU’s Robert Nyanh. Even though he doesn’t think this is likely, he’s determined to hold Firestone accountable, as he grew up on the plantation himself. "I used to help my parents do almost all of the work that they could do," he recalls. "And I felt that because I graduated there was a need to fight back for the little ones."

For years child labor was allegedly endemic at Firestone, as tappers struggled to meet the quota by enlisting their families to help them. "They wouldn’t force you as a child to go and do the work," Nyanh says. "But if you are a child who wants to see your parents survive, looking at the heavy work load, you’ll be forced to assist them. Because the work is just so heavy that one person can not complete it within a day."

While a lawsuit over the matter has been slowly winding its way through the US courts for years, most of Firestone’s critics agree that the company has made an effort to clamp down on child labor. But the quota still stands. "To complete the quota, I must have extra hands," Austin says. And the extra hands are also paid from tappers’ wages.

Nor are those extra hands considered Firestone employees. Which means not only are they working for a small share of an already meager wage, but they’re also denied the healthcare and housing the company provides to its official labor force. An official with Liberia’s Movement for Labor Justice suggests that 65% of Firestone’s workers aren’t covered by the collective bargaining agreement, as they’re considered contractors. Even if they’ve been working on the plantation for five or six years.

A new labor law—the first overhaul of Liberia’s labor legislation in decades—is slowly trudging through the Liberian legislative process. Labor advocates argue that the law would recognize all workers, as opposed to solely "employees." Still, under the new contract, the quota stands untouched.

Despite the fact that it was purchased in 1988 by Bridgestone, a Japanese company (Yukio Hatoyama, as of early June the former Prime Minister of Japan, is a scion of the Bridgestone dynasty), Firestone remains a distinctly American brand. It’s the official tire of Major League Baseball. It’s the Bridgestone Superbowl XLIV half-time show. The Firestone 550 is second only to the Indy 500. "We think when the American public is aware of what their corporate businesses are doing around the world," Edwin says, "we think it will help to put pressure on them to do the right thing here. Y’understand?"

But in Harbel, Firestone remains sovereign. So far, advocates report, the government has done nothing to address the findings of its own commission on the pollution of the plantation’s rivers. Instead, the president convinced the people of Kpanyah and Brown Town to drop a lawsuit they had filed, and formed a commission to negotiate a settlement. "This is sickening," said Alfred Brownell, an environmental advocate and lawyer for the communities. "It would be like the US government telling communities in the south that it can mediate between those communities and BP. It’s a tragedy."

Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that rubber exports, "especially by Firestone," continued throughout the roughly fifteen years Liberians refer to as the crisis, when their own state more or less collapsed. According to the TRC, the plantation even served as a base for Charles Taylor’s notoriously brutal assault on Monrovia, Operation Octopus. Christina Gaines, Firestone’s spokesperson, acknowledges that "Firestone attempted to restart its operations in Liberia at several points in time when it appeared that peace might return. In 1992 [when Operation Octopus was launched], one of those start-up attempts was made, but quickly failed due to the outbreak of war." However, the company insists that the plantation "was not in operation at the time hostile forces occupied its property during the battle over Monrovia." Firestone had reportedly agreed to pay Taylor’s NPFL $2 million a year in exchange for protection.

In its statement to The Nation, the company defended its record: "No other company managed to provide livelihood for so many Liberians during their time of need." Celebrating the new contract, Labor Minister Taiwon Gongloe declared that the union and the company had "broken from the past;" Edwin Cisco called it a "new day." Yet as Liberians struggle to move forward into the future, at times it still looks disturbingly similar to their past.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy