-But Admits Illegal Marketing
By Reuben Sei Waylaun
The Management of Firestone Rubber Company has denied the claims of bad labor practice, but at the same time admits to illegal marketing and production of cocoa and coffee, contrary to the terms of the concession agreement reached with the Liberian Government.
Firestone Liberia, one of Liberia’s biggest concessions whose history dates back to 1926, the year in which the giant rubber producing company signed a 99-year contract with the Liberian Government (GoL), which was also extended by another 38 years after a review of the contract by the Liberian legislature under the Gyude Bryant led administration, has come under frequent criticisms of not treating its black Liberian workers with dignity.
Chief amongst regular complaints which usually invokes public discontentment against the company include charges of modern day slavery; underpayment of employees; work for overtime without just benefits; poor electricity and water facilities; lack of medical benefits for black workers; subjecting workers to force labor; hard labor (12 hours tapping 750 trees daily and 21,000 trees monthly); lack of safety gears for workers; poor educational programmes for children of black workers(low ranking employees), including failure to follow the terms and dictates of the Decent Work Act with the Government of Liberia which calls for management to translate contractor agreements into full time employment after six months of work by contractors, accusations which the company vehemently denied, terming such reports as a complete misunderstanding which need basic clarification from management.
Appearing before plenary of the House of Representatives Thursday, 28 June 2018, Edmundo Garcia, Managing Director of Firestone Concession in Liberia said: “All of what you are hearing is basically misinformation that we need to clarify. Most of the issues that have been said about Firestone are just misunderstanding of the issues.”
Garcia, whose citing by the House of Representatives came after the House’s standing committee on Agriculture investigated complained of bad labor practice at the company’s operation site in Margibi County, initially declined commenting on the matter, contending that his management had not received the report in order to carry out its own independent assessment and analysis of it before officially responding. However, following persistent bombardment from lawmakers from the floor, MD Garcia finally yielded to the demand of legislators.
In response to the lawmakers’ hovering inquiries, Garcia replied to them that: “Honorable Speaker, Honorable legislators, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, Firestone Liberia is not involved in bad labor practice as it is being reported. It’s hard time, for me to hear what I am hearing today. However, I am going to provide you with the factual information and clarify most of what I called misunderstanding of the issues.”
“As far as the veracity of the issues is concerned, they are all misunderstanding that need to be clarified. Honorable Speaker, distinguished legislators, I want to inform you that Firestone Liberia pays for overtime. We also pay for each of those tasks that are being performed by our workers. It also baffles me to hear that we are underpaying our workers. Recently, we started converting our contracts to full employment. We are in the rebuilding process, since the civil war ended. We are rebuilding our operation. We are still rebuilding after the war,” Garcia informed members of the House of Representatives during his Thursday’s testimonies which was carried out in open plenary.
More Denials And Clarifications:
“As far as the issue of safe drinking water is concerned, we are providing safe and pipe borne water for our workers in the concession area. As far as the issue of electricity is concerned, we are also providing electricity for workers. We’ve also fully complied with the adult literacy education programme. As far as the issue of workers being accompanied by their wives and children on the plantation, this is something that we’ve stopped. I am not in support of it. Moreover, let me clarify here that our tappers do not tap 750 trees daily. Each tapper on the planation taps between 548 to 648 tress,” he added.
Garcia’s response to the legislature on bad labor claims presents a contrasting statement from that of the House’s agriculture committee’s report to that body, whose investigation’s findings, according to its chairman Prince O.S. Tokpah, holds the management of Firestone largely accountable for gross human right violations reportedly being meted out against Liberian contractors.
“Honorable Speaker, fellow colleagues, it would surprise you to know that during our investigation of the management of Firestone, we established that most of the things they (Firestone Management) claimed to have done is not true. It’s completely the opposite of what they are saying. For example, during our tour, we found out workers there are not being paid for overtime; they are working 12 hours with hard labor; we also saw wives and children escorting their husbands to tap rubber and, most times, they leave their children home vulnerable and, as a result of this vulnerability that these kids are exposed to, we saw teens with pregnancies. The situation is bad, and we need to come to the rescue of our citizens.”
Representative Tokpah’s account of the claims against Firestone also received huge backing from fellow legislators who, for their part, demanded the management of the company provide documentary evidence of its counterclaims. After nearly two hours of intense cross-examination of Firestone Managing Director Garcia, plenary of the House took a unanimous decision instructing the management of Firestone to go back and read the House’s Agriculture committee’s report and return with its response in two weeks’ period, including coming along with its legal team in order to face plenary for a final decision on the matter.
Montserrado lawmaker Dixon Seboe filed the motion which broke the deadlock on Firestone management’s rigorous interrogation by the House.
In a related development, the management of Firestone Liberia, through its Managing Director Edmundo Garcia has admitted that the company, contrary to the terms of the concession agreement with the GOL, is involved in unlawful marketing of furniture’s and production of cocoa and coffee.
“Honorable Speaker, Honorable lawmakers, ladies and gentlemen, let me admit that yes, we are involved in the production and selling of furniture’s on the Liberian marketing,” Garcia confessed. It’s unclear what exactly will the legislature do penalize the company, having already admitted to its gross breaching of its concession agreement with the Liberian Government.
“Yes, we are also involved in the planting and production of cocoa and coffee in the country,” Garcia also confessed to the Liberian legislature.
History of Firestone In Liberia:
In 1926, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company reached an agreement with the Liberian Government to launch the natural rubber industry development in the country. In mid 1930s, Firestone Natural Rubber Company employed thousands of Liberians, and continued to provide the capital for tree planting and for building processing factories, power plants, houses and hundreds of miles of feeder roads.
In 1976, Firestone and the Liberian Government signed a renegotiated concession agreement forming the basis of the company’s continuing operation in Liberia. Also, between the years 1990-2003, a period in which the Liberian nation suffered through a brutal civil war, Firestone Liberia limited its operations and even closed during certain points of the war era.
However, in 2003, the company resumed full production following the end of the Liberian civil war. In 2005, in order to save the Liberian rubber industry and to rehabilitate its operations to pre-war status, Firestone Rubber Company and the Liberian Government signed a renegotiated agreement. The agreement provides for extensive post-civil war capital investment, immediate replanting of rubber trees and extends the company’s lease until 2041 to ensure it has the opportunity to harvest rubber from newly planted trees. The company commits to a long-term major replanting program and the rebuilding of schools, hospitals, housing and other infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the civil war. The company also commits to providing assistance to Liberian rubber farmers.
Amongst other things, the company is regarded as one of the major contributors to the Liberian economy. In 2006, the management Firestone Rubber Company pledged US$100 million of capital to the post-war rebuilding efforts to quickly help rebuild key infrastructure.
Back in 2008, the Government of Liberia and Firestone Natural Rubber Company signed the Amended and Restated Concession Agreement that provides Firestone the stability to continue investing in the rubber farm as well as to develop and launch its new rubberwood business.