MONROVIA, Liberia (March 17, 2008) — Bridgestone/Firestone has signed a renegotiated concession agreement with the Liberian government that gives more money to the nation and provides initiatives to help the nearly 7,000 workers on the BFS rubber plantation.
Critics of BFS' activities in Liberia, however, are dissatisfied with the pact and will continue their lawsuit and other protests against the Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker. BFS, for its part, said labor activists' accusations of child labor and near-slave conditions on the plantation are totally false.
BFS has operated the 240-sq.-mile plantation at Harbel, Liberia, 35 miles from the capital of Monrovia, since 1926. The original concession agreement was negotiated by Harvey Firestone himself.
Rubber production at the plantation was shut down for much of the 1990s, during Liberia's bloody civil war, and resumed only during the tenure of President Charles Taylor, who was later removed and prosecuted for corruption in office. BFS signed a new contract in 2005 with the interim government that succeeded Taylor, but President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf asked for its renegotiation soon after she took office in January 2006.
BFS on Feb. 22 announced the deal, and said it will run until 2041. Among other things, the tire maker agreed to:
* continue its replanting program for Hevea trees on the plantation;
* complete a rubber wood factory that will create at least 500 jobs;
* increase support to small Liberian rubber farmers;
* undertake new social and educational projects for plantation workers and their families;
* use new transfer pricing provisions for dry rubber and latex, based on international indices; and
* pay an income tax of 30 percent to the Liberian government, up from the previous 25 percent.
The agreement will increase the Liberian government's revenues by nearly $2.5 million for fiscal 2007 alone, according to BFS.
However, Terry Collingsworth, an attorney for the labor rights group International Rights Advocates, said the agreement doesn't begin to address his organization's main concern, the method of compensation for rubber tappers on the plantation.
Collingsworth said he expected the compensation issue to arise in the negotiations between the company and the labor union representing Liberian workers. A spokeswoman for BFS confirmed compensation issues never have been part of the concession agreement but always have been limited to collective bargaining.
Labor activists have accused BFS of requiring Liberian workers to tap at least 1,125 trees a day to avoid being docked, a number that allegedly requires workers to make their children help with the tapping. The tire maker vehemently denies these charges.
IR Advocates is the litigation arm of the International Labor Rights Fund, which sued BFS in 2005 on a charge of unfair labor practices in Liberia, seeking compensation and work changes for employees.
Discovery in the case is scheduled for completion by November, according to Collingsworth.
Replying Feb. 8 to affidavits the ILRF presented a Los Angeles federal district court in support of the lawsuit, Firestone Natural Rubber Co.—the subsidiary of BFS that operates the plantation—said the allegations contained in the affidavits are false.
“The company has a zero-tolerance policy that prohibits employees from bringing their children to work on the rubber tree farm,” the company said. “Anyone found violating this policy, whether worker or manager, is terminated.”
Tappers' daily work is arranged to allow them to complete it in eight to 10 hours, Firestone said. Because of the Liberian civil war and Taylor's reign, Firestone couldn't start making any meaningful improvements to the plantation until 2005, according to the company. Since then, the company has built four primary and 14 secondary health care facilities, 23 schools and hundreds of houses, it said.