HARBEL, Liberia—Bridgestone Americas said "continued and unsustainable losses" mandated the layoff of hundreds of workers at its Firestone Liberia natural rubber plantation in Harbel.
However, the Firestone Agricultural Workers' Union of Liberia accused Firestone of "increasingly reneging on its promises" and said its financial condition did not allow it to vigorously pursue legal proceedings against the company.
The Firestone plantation, which employed 8,500 workers in 2015, is down to about 5,400 employees today. The company announced in March 2019 that it would lay off 800 workers at Harbel by the second quarter of last year; as of the beginning of 2020, it said, it had laid off 568.
Of the employees at Harbel, 99.7 percent are Liberian, Bridgestone Americas said in a February 2020 statement.
"Work force reductions were necessary due to continued and unsustainable losses, low natural rubber production because of the inability to replant during the country's prolonged civil wars, continued low global natural rubber prices, and the natural cycle of the farm in sections where older trees are removed to begin the replanting process," the company said.
The layoffs in Liberia have renewed protests against Bridgestone for alleged mistreatment of workers at the plantation. A Jan. 1 article in the Washington Post depicted former plantation workers with no place to go after being evicted from company housing.
The accusations against Bridgestone go back to 2005, when the International Labor Rights Fund, a labor advocacy group, filed suit against the company, accusing it of practicing both slave and child labor.
The Solidarity Center, a global non-profit organization aligned with the AFL-CIO, is one of the most vocal critics of Bridgestone's alleged actions in Liberia.
Since 2008, unions representing agricultural workers in Liberia have negotiated a series of agreements with Bridgestone that spell out workers' rights, according to the Solidarity Center.
These agreements, the center said, establish such rights as an end to child labor, higher pay, lower daily production quotas for rubber tappers, improved housing, free education for workers' children and access to medical clinics.
However, the center accused the company of doubling back on its promises after former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf left office in 2018.
"After more than 10 years of partnership with agricultural workers on the Firestone Liberia rubber plantation in Harbel, the company is increasingly backtracking, including the unilateral firing of 13 percent of its work force," read an article on the center's website, dated July 31, 2019.
More than 1,000 workers have been dismissed from the Harbel plantation since 2018, according to Rodennick M. Bongorlee, chairman and president of the Firestone Agricultural Workers' Union of Liberia.
"The laid-off workers are denied all company benefits including hospitals, schools and other just benefits, like retirement pensions," Bongorlee wrote in response to questions.
The union sees legal proceedings against Bridgestone as more effective than sit-ins or strikes, according to Bongorlee. However, the union lacks funds to fully proceed with a suit against the company, he said.
Firestone Liberia will continue to evaluate all aspects of its business in the effort to restore profitability and long-term competitiveness, according to Bridgestone Americas.
"Firestone remains committed to improving the lives of its workers, their dependents and the greater Liberian community," the company said.