Slavery Ain't Dead, It's Manufactured in Liberia's Rubber

Emmanuel B. is 30, a slender five foot three, and a slave whose
piercing brown eyes tell unspeakable truths. He’s not the kind of slave
we’ve seen in the collective imagination of 19th century plantations in
the deep South of the United States. No, Emmanuel is a modern slave in
21st century post-conflict Liberia, and Firestone Rubber Company his
unyielding master.

Like many workers on Firestone’s largest rubber plantation, Emmanuel
was born in Harbel, has lived in Harbel all his life, and will most
likely waste away in Harbel. Previously a student in Gbarnga, Emmanuel
has ambitions to return to school, but those are pie in the sky dreams
considering his family has no means of supporting him. As Westerners
drive around in their heavy-duty SUVs propelled by another type of
black gold—Firestone tires—Emmanuel wakes up at the crack of dawn to
tap raw latex from 800 rubber trees daily. His clothes are tattered,
and his shoulders covered in red puss-infected blisters from carrying
buckets full of raw latex suspended from an iron pole to the Firestone
processing plant two miles from his tapping site. For Emmanuel and his
fellow tappers, a 5 a.m. start is the only means of filling their daily
quota. Some have even begun to use their children to complete the
herculean task.

Emmanuel sat perched like a statue, surrounded by green shrubbery and
tall eerie splotched rubber trees one afternoon last December. He was
taking a break, and had just finished tapping a record 800 trees when I
spotted him while driving on a winding road on the Firestone
plantation. He was gracious enough to demonstrate what a tapper does
from sun-up to mid-morning. With a pitchfork suspended in the air,
Emmanuel extended his long wiry arms to ease the raw latex out of the
trees and into small red cups that catch the white liquid. The drip
drip drip of the white coated liquid was almost as laborious to witness
as Emmanuel’s daily task...another 799 trees to go and only five hours
left. If workers don’t fill their quotas, their wages are reduced by

I visited the Firestone Rubber plantation for the very first time in
December 2006 while on a research fact-finding mission for my
dissertation. I decided to take a break from high browed academic work,
and visit the sprawling modern day encampment I had heard so many
horror stories about. It’s what I imagined the South to look like
during the centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, with the
hustle bustle activity of plantation life and the accompanying strokes
of exploitation. As my brother-in-law, Christopher Pabai, and I pulled
into the one million acre—and constantly expanding—plantation, we were
welcomed by an ungodly stench, a stench I can only compare to the smell
of rotten cheese. Not just ordinary rotten cheese, but the kind that
has been drenched in burning oil, steamrolled on a conveyor belt, and
neatly packaged for non-human consumption. That’s what raw latex smells
like when it’s being processed. Rather than wearing masks to protect
their noses from the assault, the plantation workers ingest the foul
stench day in and day out. It took all my willpower not to retch all
over Firestone’s perfectly manicured lawn or lush green golf course
that senior management frequents while on hiatus from their
back-breaking overseeing.

Believe it or not, the foul stench is the least of the workers’ worries.

While England celebrates its 200th anniversary of the abolition of the
slave trade, plantation workers in Liberia are trapped in a time warp
of monumental proportions. They exist in the parallel universe of
multinational corporate checkmate, where the prize goes to the highest
exploiter. Firestone has been playing the chess pieces of Liberia’s
rubber slaves since the company signed a concession agreement with the
Liberian government in 1926 to lease one million acres of land for six
cents per acre—an abominable exchange given the astronomical dividends
garnered from rubber sales then and now. In 2005, Liberia’s
transitional government signed another concession agreement for an
extra 37 years of rubber slavery. Rubber is Liberia’s largest export,
and Firestone its largest international corporate exploiter, I mean
employer, to date. The country and its people have paid a high price
for the asymmetrical relationship.

In March 2007, the Firestone Rubber Company, a subsidiary of the
Japan-based Bridgestone Corporation, won the Public Eye Global Award for
its social and ecological sins which demonstrate the shady side of pure
profit-oriented globalization. The award was bestowed upon Firestone
precisely because of the slave-like conditions on the plantation in
Liberia. Workers live in dilapidated mud huts and are forced to seek
the aid of their children in the strenuous and dangerous task of
extracting latex from rubber trees. The deliberate and strategic use of
children is against international laws including ILO Conventions,
American and Liberian labour laws.

Since the plantation opened in 1926, company housing, mainly single
room mud huts with no electricity, running water, or toilet facilities,
has never been refurbished and updated to modern safety standards.
Firestone’s plantation workers and their children toil under the same
slave-like conditions they have endured for the past 80 years. The
children’s labour usually includes cutting trees with sharp tools,
applying pesticides by hand, and hauling two buckets on a pole, each
filled with more than 30 kg of latex. Every day, these child laborers
have to work long hours and are thus denied the right to basic
education. Access to the company run schools is further impeded as
parents must present a costly birth certificate in order to register
their children.

Violation of child labour laws is only one among a long list of
indictments against Firestone. According to Friends of the Earth USA,
discharge from the company’s rubber processing plant has contaminated
the adjacent Farmington River and other waterways, killing once vibrant
ecosystems and polluting communities that depend on river water for
drinking, bathing, and fishing. Furthermore, plantation workers are
exposed to toxic chemicals and compounds on a daily basis while
tapping. The merciless exploitation of Liberia’s people and natural
resources by Firestone is directly linked to the nation’s
impoverishment as the raw materials produced in Liberia are sent
elsewhere for processing, thereby shutting out the possibility of added
value. If a processing plant is built in Liberia, it could
revolutionize the way rubber is used within a continent in dire need of
manufactured goods such as condoms in the heyday of Bush’s conservative
AIDS funding policies.

Clear violations of the law prompted a legal complaint filed in
November 2005 against Bridgestone Corporation and Bridgestone Firestone
North American Tire, LLC by the International Labour Rights Fund
(ILRF), a member of the Stop Firestone Campaign which is an advocacy
coalition launched in 2005 to highlight Firestone’s exploitative
undermining of Liberian labour laws. The 35 plaintiffs either have been
or are currently child labourers on the company’s rubber plantation in
Liberia. They describe their lives as “trapped in poverty and
coercion.” The plaintiffs have brought their case to a U.S. court since
Liberia’s legal system eroded during 15 + years of civil war and
strife. The case is currently ongoing.

The ILRF, along with its Stop Firestone Coalition partners, demands that Firestone:
- provides workers with basic rights, including a living wage and the freedom of association;
- ends all child and forced labour and assigns achievable quotas;
- adopts health and safety standards; stops exposing workers to toxic compounds and chemicals;
- improves housing, schools, and health care centres to provide safe and comfortable facilities;
- ensures public disclosure of revenue and all types of foreign investment contracts;
- stops releasing chemicals into the environment and redresses all environmental damage; and
-publicly discloses the identity and quantity of all toxic compounds that it releases or transports.

Liberia’s Minister of Labour, Kofi Woods, a long-time human rights
activist/lawyer and a major catalyst for the Stop Firestone Campaign,
has been in rounds of renegotiation sessions with Firestone
representatives recently in Washington, D.C. Because of his list of
demands—which are reminiscent of the Stop Firestone Coalition
demands—Firestone representatives stormed out of the meetings in March
2007. Go figure. Woods and his cohorts are what I imagine African
legislators should be like, uncompromising and unyielding when it comes
to corporate social and ethical responsibility. Liberia’s post-conflict
reconstruction agenda will be null and void without a reconfiguration
of the concession agreement with Firestone. After all, any post-war
scheme involves a drastic revving up of the national economy, and given
Firestone’s economic entrenchment in Liberia, it will need to refashion
how it deals with Liberian workers, thereby increasing employee profit

History challenges us to stay on a forward moving dialectic of change.
The Firestone example shows us that an ironic distortion of that
dialectic is taking place right under our noses. Slavery ain’t dead,
it’s manufactured in the rubber we use daily. We owe it to Emmanuel and
his comrades on the Firestone Rubber plantation to change the course of
history, to make a clean break from modern-day slavery and its peculiar
21st century manifestations. We owe it to ourselves.

For more information on the Stop Firestone Campaign, visit 

Listen to Robtel Pailey's interview with Liberian Minister of Labour
Kofi Woods and activist Ezekiel Pajibo about the role of Firestone tyre
company in Liberia in this weeks Pambazuka News Podcast

**This editorial originally appeared on Pambazuka News and is available online here**