HARBEL, Liberia-Bridgestone/Firestone claims a new report from the United Nations Mission in Liberia concerning conditions on five Liberian natural rubber plantations is filled with inaccuracies and distortions.
"It´s not even close to being right," said a spokesman for BFS. He did say the report correctly notes the Nashville-based tire maker makes more of an effort to provide its Liberian workers health care, education and other basic amenities than the four other plantations in the country.
However, the International Labor Rights Fund-which is suing BFS, claiming the company keeps its nearly 6,000 Liberian workers in a state close to slave labor-hailed the UN report as a vindication of its position. "What a beautiful thing that was," said Terry Collingsworth, staff attorney for the labor rights group.
Issued May 4, the report is a consideration of current working and human rights conditions on the 240-square-mile BFS site near Harbel and the four other plantations:
—Liberian Agriculture Co. Inc., a subsidiary of the Luxembourg-based Intercultures;
—Cavalla Rubber Plantation, once part of the BFS plantation but taken over by the Liberian government in 1981;
—Guthrie Rubber Plantation, also government-owned, once operated by Guthrie Rubber Co. but now under the management of Agro Resources Corp. Liberia Ltd.; and
—Sinoe Rubber Plantation, once operated by Mesurado Corp. but now illegally occupied and managed by former Liberian rebel soldiers.
The 80-year-old concession agreement between BFS and the Liberian government was renewed in January 2005.
That pact is the only one of the five plantation concession agreements that refers to the promotion and protection of human rights, the UN mission said. But the agency expressed concern over a clause in the pact stating, "Plant Protection Force shall have the power of apprehension and detention." The group also said neither BFS nor the government invited the Firestone Agricultural Workers´ Union of Liberia, which organizes the workers at Harbel, to participate in the concession negotiations.
The report said only the Liberian Agriculture Co. Inc. agreement contains any provisions to provide safety devices and precautions for workers using caustic acids in the extraction of rubber. Only BFS and the Liberian Agriculture Co. have processing plants on their plantations, the UN mission said, and only the latter allowed human rights observers to view conditions in its plant.
Although Liberian law forbids employing children younger than 16, the report said human rights observers spoke to child laborers ages 10 to 14 at BFS and other plantations. BFS does supply housing, schools and hospitals, the UN said, but some of the houses look as if they haven´t been renovated since the 1920s or ´30s, and some plantation children live too far away from the schools to attend them.
UN observers also have seen BFS and other plantations discharge industrial waste directly into rivers, the report said.
BFS disputed the report point-by-point. The firm is doing the best it can to provide for workers in a country that still has no electricity, running water, sewer system or phone lines after a devastating 14-year war that claimed more than 300,000 lives, it said.
The tappers´ union at the plantation didn´t participate in the concession agreement talks because that pact is strictly between BFS and the Liberian government, the company said. "The processing plant (at Harbel) is an ´open-air´ facility and virtually anyone who visits the operation gets a tour of the processing plant," the firm said.
BFS has a zero-tolerance policy against child labor and instructs its Liberian workers not to bring their children to work, the company said.
"The existence of a clear policy doesn´t guarantee 100-percent compliance," the firm said. "People unfortunately violate rules and policies. But we are enforcing this policy uniformly at our operation."
The firm operates more than 20 schools with more than 8,000 children enrolled, BFS said, and is building more. The operation´s wastewater is treated before being discharged into the Farmington River, it said, and BFS is building an improved water treatment system.
BFS has an ongoing $34 million housing construction and renovation project in Liberia that is scheduled for completion in 2015, the company said. "Teachers, doctors and rubber industry employees are moving into their free, newly renovated Firestone housing as quickly as local builders can complete the units," it said.
However, Collingsworth praised the report. Last year he visited the BFS plantation and said he had seen child labor and substandard conditions there.
"This report goes a long way toward proving our point-that child labor is pervasive in Liberia," he said.
The fund sued the tire maker in federal court in November 2005 on behalf of workers at the Harbel plantation. A scheduling hearing in the case is set for June 19, Collingsworth said.