INDIANAPOLIS (Aug. 28, 2008) — Labor groups are hailing the new labor agreement between Bridgestone/Firestone and workers at the company's Liberian natural rubber plantation as a historic achievement.
The agreement ratified Aug. 6 ensures better pay, work conditions and living conditions for more than 4,000 members of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia, according to the United Steelworkers union and the International Labor Rights Forum.
The ILRF, however, is continuing its lawsuit on behalf of Firestone workers in Liberia, a forum spokesman said.
Meanwhile, a BFS spokeswoman accused the labor groups of misrepresenting both the agreement and the company's record in Liberia.
“There is a lot of misinformation from these organizations,” the spokeswoman said. “We've tried to mitigate that where we can, but there's only so much we can do.”
BFS negotiated with FAWUL, which has been the official representative of Firestone Liberia workers since a July 2007 union election.
Previously, workers at the 240-sq.-mile plantation were represented by the General Agricultural and Allied Workers Union of Liberia, which the USW and ILRF accused of being too close to BFS management.
The new agreement succeeds an earlier labor pact that lapsed in January 2007, according to the USW.
Among other things, the union said, the company agreed to increase wages by 24 percent, reduce daily tree-tapping quotas by 20 percent, upgrade housing and educational facilities, and provide transportation to latex weigh stations, the union said.
“Previously, tappers had to walk long distances with 150 pounds of latex yoked to their backs,” the USW said in a press release.
However, the BFS spokeswoman said that much of the USW's description of the contract was inaccurate.
The agreement does raise wages 8 percent over three years, she said, but it contains nothing whatsoever about latex transportation. The report that workers carry 150 pounds of latex at a time, she added, is unsubstantiated.
“This is a good example of how misinformation multiplies,” she said. “They accused us of using 75-pound buckets for latex, and when they saw pictures of workers carrying two buckets at a time, they assumed they were carrying 150 pounds.”
BFS is pleased at completing negotiations with FAWUL without a work stoppage and on terms beneficial to both the workers and the company, the spokeswoman said.
“Along with the renegotiation of our Liberian concession agreement earlier this year, we feel this new labor contract is a very positive moment in history for us,” she said.
In the USW release, USW International President Leo W. Gerard praised the agreement as a victory for workers' rights.
“These brave workers stood up to a powerful international corporation and declared that they will no longer be treated as second-class citizens or indentured servants,” Gerard said.
The ILRF spokesman said his organization has only begun to study the full text of the BFS-FAWUL agreement. He added, however, that it regards the pact as a major improvement for Liberian workers and hopes the tire maker will abide by it.
In November 2005, the ILRF filed suit against BFS in Los Angeles federal district court on behalf of the Liberian plantation workers.
Among other things, the suit accused BFS of allowing the use of child labor on the plantation and docking workers 50 percent if they didn't meet a tapping quota of 1,125 trees per day.
The case has since been moved to the federal district court in Indianapolis, which is the headquarters city of Bridge- stone/Firestone Diversified Products, the division of BFS that oversees the Liberian plantation. The case is in the discovery phase, and ILRF attorneys have taken depositions from Liberian workers with plans to take more, the spokesman said.
BFS always has vehemently denied it ever used child labor at the Liberian plantation, or in any way abridged the rights of Liberian workers.
There has been a Firestone natural rubber plantation in Liberia since 1926, when Harvey Firestone personally negotiated a concession agreement with the Liberian government. Operations at the plantation were at a standstill for most of the 1990s, during the most violent period of the Liberian civil war.