Firestone Natural Rubber Company
Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC is a subsidiary of the Bridgestone Americas, Inc. Headquartered in Nashville, TN, the company operates the largest contiguous rubber plantation in the world in Harbel, Liberia, which first opened in 1926.
|Headquarters||Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.|
|Ed Garcia (CEO)|
|Owner||Bridgestone Americas, Inc|
Creation and early historyEdit
During the 1920s, the United States access to rubber was restricted by the European colonial powers (Britain and the Netherlands), which held a monopoly in rubber production. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, considered rubber a vital resource due to its usage for car tires and began working with American rubber companies in order to find a rubber source that was controlled by US interests. Part of a Department of Commerce-subsidised worldwide search for a place for rubber plantations, rubber magnate Harvey Samuel Firestone sent experts to Liberia in December 1923 to do a soil survey.
In 1926, the Liberian government granted Firestone a 99-year lease for a million acres (to be chosen by the company wherever in Liberia) at a price of 6 cents per acre, Firestone then set about establishing rubber tree plantations of the non-native South American rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis in the country, eventually creating the world's largest rubber plantation. Firestone also provided a $5 million loan at a 7% interest rate to the government to pay the foreign debts it had  and to build a harbour needed by Firestone. The loan was given in exchange for complete authority over the government's revenues until the loan was paid.
The loan took a larger and larger portion of the Liberian government's incomes: it grew from 20% of the total revenue of Liberia in 1929, to 32% in 1930, to 54.9% in 1931 and nearly the whole revenue in 1932. An estimation made by a member of the American Legation in Liberia said that Liberia really paid a 17% interest rate for the loan.
During the Great Depression, as rubber price fell, Firestone stopped its development of the plantation (using just 50,000 acres and cutting wages in half), and, depriving the Liberian government of tax incomes, the government missed a payment to the loans to the company. Firestone asked the US government to send a warship to Monrovia to enforce the debt payment, but President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected the "gunboat diplomacy". The loans to the company were finally paid in 1952.
During the civil warsEdit
As rubber demand went down during the 1980s, Firestone dismissed a number of 5000 workers, leading to the local antipathy to the company. On June 6, 1990, during the First Liberian Civil War, the resistance group National Patriotic Front of Liberia took over the Firestone plantation and evacuated US personnel. The exact nature of Firestone's activities in the plantation between 1990 and 1997 is unclear, the government's official stance was that they were able to take it back within a few months, while media reports say that it was not operational until late 1994.
In 1997, after the violence was over, the company restarted the operations, at first at a third of capacity, with 3000 workers. The company soon faced a number of violent protests, as its employees wanted better working conditions, better pay and resettlement benefits. By October 2008, it was operating at half the capacity, withholding further investments until the government finally agreed to give the company a lenient tax status.
In 2005, the Firestone Company and the Liberian government signed a new 37-year deal raising the lease to 50 cents per acre.
The workers accuse the company of serious labor abuses, including exploitative child labor, which they claim amount to modern-day slavery. Workers specifically claim that Firestone's high daily quotas force them to employ their own children, subjecting them to grueling and dangerous work conditions. In response to the claims, the president of Firestone Natural Rubber told a CNN interviewer that "each tapper will tap about 650 trees a day, where they spend perhaps a couple of minutes at each tree." As the network pointed out, this would add up to more than 21 hours of work per day.
In May 2006, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) released a report detailing the state of human rights on Liberia's rubber plantations. According to the report, Firestone managers in Liberia admitted that the company does not effectively monitor its own policy prohibiting child labor. UNMIL found that several factors contribute to the occurrence of child labor on Firestone plantations: pressure to meet company quotas, incentive to support the family financially, and lack of access to basic education.
Alien Tort Claims ActEdit
In November 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund, representing "tappers" (workers who extract latex from rubber trees) on the Liberian plantation, filed an Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) case in US District Court in California against Bridgestone (parent company owning Firestone), alleging "forced labor, the modern equivalent of slavery", on the Firestone Plantation in Harbel, Liberia.
The lawsuit stated:
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.
Firestone rejected these allegations, stating that the corporation has provided employment and pensions to thousands of Liberians as well as healthcare. The company also provides education and training opportunities to employees and their children.
In reply to the charge of exploitative child labor, Management of the plantation claims that workers are bringing their own children to work to assist them and that this is not endorsed by the plantation management.
Workers claim that management's high daily quotas force them to employ their own children as their only means of meeting quotas.
Even though Liberia does have child labor laws and Firestone has banned children from tapping trees, workers say the ban is not enforced. The workers say the only way they can complete their daily quota is to bring their children along.
Firestone management says if children are found helping their parents, the employees are cancelled, and if necessary, disciplined. "We have very strict policies about our child labor. We do not hire anybody under 18 years of age, and we discourage parents from bringing their children to the fields with them."
According to the report, Firestone managers in Liberia admitted that the company does not effectively monitor its own policy prohibiting child labor. UNMIL found that several factors contribute to the occurrence of child labor on Firestone plantations: pressure to meet company quotas, incentive to support the family financially, and lack of access to basic education. The report also noted that workers' housing provided by Firestone has not been renovated since the houses were constructed in the 1920s and 1930s.
In response to the accusations of child labor and poor housing in the UN report, Dan Adomitis, President of Firestone Natural Rubber Company Liberia, stated:
Well, in addition to the devastation that 15 years of civil war has caused, I think you need to understand another point—during the 2003 fighting, we had thousands of refugees come to Harbel for the safety that it provided. When those people came, they occupied any open area of land that was available. They put up temporary housing made out of mud, out of bamboo, out of thatch, out of tarpaulin, out of corrugated steel. Anything that they could do to get shelter. And those conditions still exist. They are not Firestone housing, but they are on our property.... We have very strict policies about child labor. We do not hire anybody under 18 years of age, and we discourage parents from bringing their children to the fields with them. We have a program with the Ministry of Labor in Liberia to - and also the union that represents our employees—to educate parents about why they should not bring children with them into the field. And if we see incidents of this, we will cancel those employees, and if necessary, ultimately discipline them over such issue.
- Robert Anthony Waters Jr, Historical Dictionary of United States-Africa Relations, Scarecrow Press, 2009, ISBN 9780810862913, p. 103-104
- W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, "Liberia, the League and the United States", Foreign Affairs, July 1931
- Rosenau, p. 17
- Rosenau, p. 18
- Rosenau, p. 20
- Rosenau, p. 21
- Rosenau, p. 22
- "Human Rights in Liberia's Rubber Plantations: Tapping into the Future". United Nations Mission in Liberia (2006). Retrieved 2015-10-01.
- "Is Bridgestone/Firestone Exploiting Liberian Workers?". CNN.
- "Firestone Claim". socialfunds.com. Archived from the original on 2007-02-06. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
- "Firestone Briefing". lantos.house.org. Archived from the original on 2007-06-28. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
- "Liberian Controversy". cnn.com. Retrieved 2006-07-30.
- Official site
- Firestone Mired in Slave Labor Charges in Liberia
- Rubber Workers Charge Slave-Like Conditions
- Child labor, Exploitation, Environmental Destruction – Stop Firestone Coalition; retrieved on 2008-08-02