HARBEL, Liberia-Most of the nearly 6,000 workers at the Bridgestone/Firestone natural rubber plantation near Harbel came back to work Feb. 15 after a strike of almost two weeks.
Workers walked off the job Feb. 3, claiming the firm was cheating them out of wages and benefits.
The strike and the reasons for it received wildly different interpretations from observers. BFS claimed the strike was based on a misunderstanding, while the International Labor Rights Fund insists BFS treats its Liberian plantation workers virtually as slaves and has an unfair labor practices lawsuit pending against the company.
The crux of the strike was the workers´ claim that BFS deducted 37.5 percent from their wages, starting last year. Supposedly, this money was to be set aside to improve educational and health care facilities on the 240-square-mile plantation, according to Reuters and other news sources, but workers told reporters that they had seen no improvements at all in these areas.
A BFS spokesman in Nashville, Tenn., however, said the company never deducted anything from the workers´ wages. The accusation, he said, results from confusion over the differential in value between the U.S. dollar and the Liberian dollar.
When BFS returned to Harbel in 1997, after a seven-year hiatus caused by the Liberian civil war, the Liberian government ordered it to start paying workers in U.S. dollars instead of the severely devalued Liberian dollar, the spokesman claimed. The question of currency value has come up before, and he said it was resolved years ago.
"Some tappers have come back to work, but not all," the spokesman said. There are two lines now operating in the plantation´s processing plant, he added, and most of the rubber purchasers and transport personnel have reported for work.
"Great progress has been made, but not everyone has yet returned to work," he said.
Reuters quoted Liberian Labor Minister Kofi Woods Feb. 15 as saying that negotiations between plantation workers, BFS and the government were about 75-percent complete.
The workers´ actions contradict the International Labor Rights Fund´s claim that BFS workers in Liberia are virtual slaves, according to the BFS spokesman. "The strike indicates that Firestone´s Liberian workers have the same rights as any freely employed workers," he said.
But Terry Collingsworth, an attorney for the labor fund who visited the plantation just before the group filed its lawsuit against BFS in December, said the workers´ strike was a remarkable act of courage.
"I think the workers there feel empowered now," Collingsworth said. "They know that people here are representing them in court, and that the new government is interested in their welfare."
The unfair labor practices lawsuit is before Judge Jack Walter of the Los Angeles federal district court. BFS has filed motions to dismiss and for a change of venue from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, where Firestone Natural Rubber Co. is based. Walter will hear both motions April 3, according to Collingsworth and the BFS spokesman.
In the lawsuit, the labor fund accuses BFS of paying Liberian workers near-starvation wages and docking them 50 percent if they don´t meet a daily quota of tapping 1,125 trees, a number that forces children to work alongside their parents during workdays of 12 to 14 hours.
The company denies all these charges, saying that its workers are among the highest-paid in Liberia; that the plantation employs no one under 18; and that more than 7,000 children are enrolled in 20 Liberian schools funded by BFS.