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In late 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed an Alien Tort Claims Act case in the US District Court in California against Bridgestone, alleging "forced labor, the modern equivalent of slavery" on a Firestone Plantation in Harbel, Liberia. The lawsuit states: "The Plantation workers allege, among other things, that they remain trapped by poverty and coercion on a frozen-in-time Plantation operated by Firestone in a manner identical to how the Plantation was operated when it was first opened by Firestone in 1926." Robtel Pailey investigates modern-day slavery in the "land of the free".

In the early 1820’s, Liberia transformed into a land of exile for repatriated American slaves. In fact, the country was a proverbial refuge from the dehumanizing, deplorable conditions of chattel slavery in the United States. So any mention of the word “plantation” should have Liberians visibly shuddering from the historical legacy that many of its descendants endured.

Ironically enough, a recent development suggests that Liberia itself has served as a breeding ground for modern day slavery disguised in the form of what some would call indentured servitude for the American corporation, Firestone. Declared Africa’s first republic in 1847, Liberia has been embroiled in an asymmetrical relationship with the rubber giant since the corporation first landed on the shores of the country in 1926. Eighty years later, human rights groups have sidestepped Firestone’s alleged abusive practices and lodged a class action suit against the American company for violations of child labour laws, cruel and unusual labour practices, and environmental degradation. Practices, they claim, are no different from the moment the plantation opened. Since 1926, Firestone has allegedly relied on forced labour, involuntary servitude, recklessness, negligence in hiring and supervision, unjust enrichment and unfair business practices.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of workers and their children at the plantation under pseudonyms, names Japanese parent company Bridgestone, Bridgestone Americas Holding, Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire and other units as defendants.

The International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) filed the class-action suit in the name of 12 Liberian workers and their 23 children, who remain anonymous to protect themselves from retaliation. The plaintiffs are bringing their case to the US because the Liberian judicial system has been eroded in the mire of civil breakdown. “The plantation workers are stripped of rights, they are isolated, they are at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to health care to education, they risk expulsion and certain starvation if they raise even minor complaints, and the company makes wilful use of this situation to exploit these workers as they have since 1926,” the lawsuit claims. ILRF and its allies - Liberian human rights lawyers and activists - serve as an advocacy apparatus for the health and legal rights of Firestone workers in Harbel, Liberia.

The history of Firestone in Liberia is revealing. In 1926, the company signed a concession agreement with the government of Liberia for a period of 99 years. That agreement covered one million acres of land, leased for six cents per acre for a total annual price of $60,000. Large sectors of the indigenous population were displaced to pave the way for setting up Firestone’s largest plantation in Harbel. Even in the company’s infancy, Liberians were recruited to provide forced labour to harvest and cultivate the rubber trees, after which they engaged in “tapping,” the labour-intensive act of using primitive tools to tap the raw latex out of rubber trees for export. Labourers were initially conscripted at gunpoint, and many of the descendants of those labourers serve as plaintiffs in the case against Firestone today.

Despite a surge of civil dissent and democratic outcries in 2005, Firestone signed a new 37-year agreement with the Transitional Government in Liberia to lease the land for 50 cents per acre, a “hike up” from the original leasing agreement. According to a recent report published by the Save My Future Foundation, Firestone exported 167,165 tons of rubber between 2000 and 2003. The price of rubber reaches astronomical highs today at $486 per ton. In the measurement of trade regulations at present, Firestone is receiving $81,242,190 from its production in Liberia. All of the rubber produced in Liberia is sent to the United States for processing into tires, and other materials. No processing, manufacturing, or other value added production is done in Liberia.

The level of poverty in Liberia is so astonishing that people flock to the plantation for a mere pittance. The average tapper generates $900 monthly for the company yet receives barely a tenth of that as compensation from Firestone once fees and services are deducted from wages. As a result, the tappers slog for a mere $3.19 a day. After having worked for Firestone for over 50 years, some retired plantation workers apparently collect less than $50 a month in pension earnings.

Aside from dealing with the poverty of indentured servitude, Firestone labourers must contend with health-related infirmities. The tappers expose their eyes to the potentially blinding latex, applying dangerous pesticides and fertilizers to the rubber trees. The raw latex from the rubber trees is fatal when applied to the eyes, as there have been countless reported cases of workers suffering from permanent eye damage due to exposure. They are forced to carry 75-pound buckets overflowing with the collected latex quota of the day. Unschooled about the dangers of the products they are handling, the workers know not to ask for safety equipment. Many of the tappers have severe scars and bone muscle abnormalities as a result of the tapping.

The labourers work 12-15 hour days, then must enlist the help of their families (including young children and wives) to complete a daily quota in order to ensure a weekly wage. No days off, no paid holidays, no sick leave. A shameful phenomenon in the Firestone scheme is its implied support of child labour. Most of the children are working on the plantations instead of attending school. The few that do attend go to substandard schools in dilapidated conditions. Firestone claims that it provides free education to the children of its workers, but in actuality the workers must pay an income tax automatically deducted from their monthly wages to cover the costs of so-called educational expenses.

The children and their families toil on the plantation by day, and return to the squalor of primitive living conditions at night with no electricity or running water. Firestone blames the country’s more than a decade long civil war for the breakdown of infrastructure, yet members of the Firestone clan aided and abetted the rebel leader-turned president Charles Taylor so as to avoid damage to the plantation when the war raged on. Some of Taylor’s rebel armies were even stationed at Harbel, enjoying the fruits of their fellow countrymen’s literal blood, sweat, and tears.

Miles away from the deplorable living conditions of the Liberian labour force, the company’s managerial staff benefits from the rubber wealth, luxuriating in air-conditioned bungalows and even stopping from their “backbreaking” work as overseers to play a round of golf on the erected course nearby. Mud huts and shanty huts coexist with big, immaculate looking makeshift houses. Firestone claims that the mud huts that exist on the land were created by internally displaced Liberians who flocked to the plantation during the height of civil war in the country. Yet, Firestone owns the land and retains all the responsibilities of its upkeep. Furthermore, some of the conditions existed before the civil war and were entrenched for years.

The entire scenario represents a microcosm of inequitable trade rules benefiting large Western corporations that exploit raw material within the developing world, leaving the indigenous people with environmental spills, physical ailments, and broken morale. The Firestone case in Liberia is a microcosm of American corporate takeover and a flagrant disregard of indigenous rights. It is an extension of the transatlantic slave trade, and should be exposed as such.

* A native of Buchanan, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey currently serves as Assistant Editor of The Washington Informer, a Washington, D.C. based community newspaper.

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