Following four months of earnest bargaining between ICEM affiliate Firestone Agricultural Workers’ Union of Liberia (FAWUL) and management of the Firestone Rubber Plantation in the West African nation, the two sides reached a historic three-year collective agreement on 27 July.
The contract, the first between the two parties and one covering some over 4,500 workers, was signed on 6 August. Two days later, the FAWUL leadership team, together with officers of the newly-merged Liberian Labor Congress, briefed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the agreement.
The contract comes seven months after the Liberian Supreme Court ruled that the union was the legitimate bargaining representative for Firestone workers. In July 2007, FAWUL defeated a longstanding yellow union in an internationally monitored election. That election came after an arduous union-building project on behalf of plantation workers by the US-based United Steelworkers (USW) and the US Solidarity Center that succeeded in bringing a free and democratic trade union to the plantation.
FAWUL affiliated with the ICEM following the mid-2007 election.
“This is a major success story for Firestone Plantation staff, and one which they can be justifiably proud of,” stated ICEM General Secretary Manfred Warda. “The efforts of the USW and the Solidarity Center in leading up to these negotiations cannot be understated.”
USW President Leo Gerard called the first agreement “a new day for workers throughout Liberia. It is also a crucial victory in the global fight for workers’ rights. This agreement sets a new labor standard for all of Liberia’s workers.”
The contract grants rubber tappers a 24% wage increase averaged over the contract’s term that is retroactive to January 2007. For other workers, a 21% increase was realized, backdated to the same date, which means all plantation staff will receive a 19-month retroactive pay raise.
Agreement was made to reduce by 20% rubber tree quotas, meaning each worker will tap 150 fewer trees. Also, FAWUL and plantation management came to terms on a mechanized system of transporting natural rubber from roads to weigh stations, relieving workers from the 150-pound buckets that had to carry for long stretches.
Regarding social improvements, Bridgestone-Firestone will build new high schools, one on the plantation site and the other in the nearby community of Harbel. Students will be able to attend school free of charge through Grade 12. Previously, free education was provided only up to Grade 9.
The ICEM salutes FAWUL President Austin Natee and Secretary-General Edwin Cisco, as well as the entire leadership team of this dynamic trade union for their historic accomplishment.