Firestone Natural Rubber Company

Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC is a subsidiary of the Bridgestone Americas, Inc. Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, the company operates the largest contiguous rubber farm in the world in Harbel, Liberia, which first opened in 1926.

Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC
Company typeSubsidiary
HeadquartersNashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Key people
Rick Burnett (CEO)
OwnerBridgestone Americas, Inc

History edit

Creation and early history edit

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.[1] 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 U.S. interests.[1] 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.[1]

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,[2] 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.[1] The United States government was involved in the offshore rubber production operation from the outset, as scholar Christine Whyte point out: "The deal had the approval of the U.S. State Department, who hoped that the huge contract would keep Liberia within the American sphere of influence, without necessitating direct governmental control. The last–minute addition of a twenty–five million dollar loan attached to the concession was intended to ensure that American corporate influence dominated."[3]

The Firestone Plantation was originally envisioned for 350,000 people to be employed on the newly created plantations. However this was more than the number of able–bodied men in the entire nation at the time, which created intense pressure for labor. As early as May 1925 British officials in Monrovia informed their superiors in London of how unfeasible these numbers were and warned that "natives would soon be converted into wage-slaves..."[3] The Liberian government supplied men to create and staff the plantations by giving local chieftains quotas for workers that were impossibly high to meet. Among the men contracted by Firestone, Allen Yancey notoriously coerced men to prepare land in Maryland county for the plantations without pay. Clearing such vast tracks of land displaced many people. In 1929 the Liberian legislature received a complaint from King Maya Gedebeo of Twansiebo that, in addition to destroying nine towns in the area, the Firestone project made people "choose between forced labor and emigration."[3]

As a part of the agreement with Firestone, the Liberian government was given funding to pay the foreign debts it had incurred,[1] and to develop a harbor necessary for rubber exportation.[2] In return for a $5 million loan at a 7% interest rate,[2] Firestone was given complete authority over Liberian revenues until it was repaid.[4] Overtime the loan took a larger and larger portion of government income: 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.[2] A member of the American Legation in Liberia estimated that Liberia effectively paid a 17% interest rate on the loan.[2]

Scholar Christine Whyte describes the Firestone plantation model in Liberia that emerged in the late–1920s and 1930s as a blatant, "export of the “company town” model from Ohio to Liberia. These towns were intended to not just provide worker housing, but also allowed the company to oversee many aspects of employees’ lives. Firestone controlled education, the judicial system, and health–care provision in the villages established on or near plantations."[3]

During the Great Depression, as rubber price fell,[2] 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 loan payment to the company. Firestone asked the U.S. government to send a warship to Monrovia to enforce the debt payment, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt rejected the "gunboat diplomacy".[1]

During the 1940s workers began to protest their low wages dangerous working conditions and inadequate housing provided by Firestone.[3] In the period between 1926 and 1946 Christine Whyte concluded that:

"The collusion between Firestone and government officials to keep wages low and coerce workers onto the plantations was at best substantially overlooked, at worst regarded as a form of 'development' in itself."[3]

The Firestone loan was finally paid off in 1952.[5]

Journey Without Maps (1936) edit

In Journey Without Maps, Graham Greene's 1936 chronicle of his four month journey in Liberia, Greene describes Firestone as: "a commercial company with no interests in Liberia but rubber and dividends," adding that, "no one could really tell whether that labour was voluntary or forced."[6] Greene also highlights the Firestone plantation hierarchy: "at the end of several hours’ rough driving from the capital, live the Firestone men in houses containing shower baths and running water and electric light, with a wireless station, tennis courts and a bathing pool, and a new neat hospital in the middle of plantations which smell all the day through of latex, as it drips into little cups tied beneath incisions in the trunks. They, more than the English or the French, are the official Enemy, and no story of whipping post, smuggled arms or burnt villages is too wild to be circulated and believed among Liberians of both parties."[6]

Firestone-Smithsonian Expedition (1940) edit

Pith-helmeted Americans William M. Mann (1886-1960) and Lucile Quarry Mann (1897-1986) on the 1940 Firestone-Smithsonian Expedition to Liberia, pictured with Boima Quae and child (center), Fermeteh (far right), and an unidentified person (far left).

In February 1940 the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company financed a 4 1/2 month expedition led by director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park, William M. Mann (and his wife Lucile Quarry Mann), to collect specimens of animals and other flora.[7] The Manns' account details that, "during the hotter part of the day one rides in a hammock, which is fastened to a frame and carried on the heads of four boys"[7] and photographs taken by the Manns depict this mode of transport.[8] The Smithsonian Institution Archives have digitized and made Lucile Quarry Mann's "Diary: Firestone Expedition to Liberia, 1940 (February 15 – August 8, 1940)" detailing the trip available online.[9] In 1999 the National Film Preservation Foundation funded the Smithsonian's preservation of color home movies of the expedition,[10] which are also available online.[11]

During the civil wars edit

As rubber demand went down during the 1980s, Firestone dismissed a number of 5000 workers, leading to the local antipathy to the company.[12] 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 U.S. personnel.[12] 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,[12] while media reports say that it was not operational until late 1994.[13]

American writer Denis Johnson reported two lengthy stories about the Liberian civil wars in the 1990s: "The Civil War in Hell" appeared in the December 1990 issue of Esquire,[14] and "The Small Boys Unit" (which chronicles an aborted December 1992 New Yorker profile of Charles Taylor) was published in the October 2000 issue of Harper's Magazine. In the latter chronicle, republished in a 2001 collection of essays by HarperCollins, Johnson is held prisoner by Taylor on the Firestone plantation, describing it, thus: "a realm of tall rubber trees. Cool suffused light and perfect little golf–course gravel roads, the Firestone rubber plantation, one million acres of tall slender trees. [...] a square mile or more of groomed lawns with a few buildings scattered across them like toys. [...] I resided in the great house of a plantation so vast it constituted a region known on the maps simply as "Firestone." "[15] Johnson provides first–hand details of an aerial attack upon Firestone's Harbel village, likely bombed by Economic Community Cease–Fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) of the ECOWAS as had already been perpetrated in November of 1992.[16][17]

In 1997, after the violence was over, the company restarted the operations, at first at a third of capacity, with 3000 workers.[13] The company soon faced a number of violent protests, as its employees wanted better working conditions, better pay and resettlement benefits.[13] 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.[18]

Current operations edit

In 2005, the Firestone Company and the Liberian government signed a new 37–year deal raising the lease to 50 cents per acre.[1]

Labor controversies edit

Liberian Firestone workers accuse the company of serious labor abuses, including exploitative child labor, which they claim amount to modern–day slavery.[19] 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.[20]

In May 2006, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) released a report detailing the state of human rights on Liberia's rubber plantations.[19] 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.[19]

Alien Tort Claims Act litigation (2005) edit

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 U.S. 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.[21]

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.[22]

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."[23]

Firestone requested to transfer the case to Indianapolis, Indiana, from California and this request was granted in April 2006.

United Nations Mission in Liberia report (2006) edit

In May 2006, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) released a report: "Human Rights in Liberia’s Rubber Plantations: Tapping into the Future".[19]

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.[19]

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.[20]... 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.[23]

Center for International Policy report (2020) edit

Beginning in March 2019, the Washington, D.C. based Center for International Policy funded an investigation into alleged labor and environmental standards violations by Firestone in Liberia, culminating in publication of the February 2020 report, "A Bridge Too Far: Social and Environmental Concerns in Bridgestone's Liberian Rubber Plantation and a Plan for Remediation."[24] The report details labor rights violations of Firestone's collective bargaining agreements with the Firestone workers union; Firestone's failure to honor pension payments for retired Firestone employees; and, Firestone's contamination of local watersheds resulting in elimination of fish and natural wildlife.[24] Firestone parent company, Bridgestone, participated in the report's study.

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Robert Anthony Waters Jr, Historical Dictionary of United States-Africa Relations, Scarecrow Press, 2009, ISBN 9780810862913, p. 103-104
  2. ^ a b c d e f W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, "Liberia, the League and the United States", Foreign Affairs, July 1931
  3. ^ a b c d e f Whyte, Christine (2017). "A State of Underdevelopment: Sovereignty, Nation-Building and Labor in Liberia 1898–1961". International Labor and Working-Class History. 92: 24–46. doi:10.1017/S0147547917000084. ISSN 0147-5479. S2CID 148968854.
  4. ^ Rosenau, p. 17
  5. ^ Rosenau, p. 18
  6. ^ a b Greene, Graham (1936). Journey Without Maps: A Travel Book (2nd ed.). London: William Heinemann. p. 289.
  7. ^ a b Mann, William and Lucile Q. (November 1940). "The Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia". The Scientific Monthly. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 51 (5): 482–485. Bibcode:1940SciMo..51..482M – via JSTOR.
  8. ^ Mann, William M.; Mann, Lucile Quarry (1940). Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia, 1940.
  9. ^ Mann, Lucille Quarry (1940). "Diary: Firestone Expedition to Liberia, 1940 (February 15 - August 8, 1940)". Smithsonian Institution Archives.
  10. ^ "National Film Preservation Foundation: Awarded Grants". Retrieved 2022-09-01.
  11. ^ William M. Mann and Lucile Quarry Mann - 1940 Smithsonian-Firestone Expedition to Liberia, retrieved 2022-09-01
  12. ^ a b c Rosenau, p. 20
  13. ^ a b c Rosenau, p. 21
  14. ^ JOHNSON, DENIS. "The Civil War in Hell | Esquire | December 1990". Esquire | The Complete Archive. Retrieved 2022-09-07.
  15. ^ Johnson, Denis (2002). Seek : reports from the edges of America & beyond. New York, NY: Perennial. pp. 198–200. ISBN 0-06-093047-0. OCLC 50399188.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  16. ^ Johnson, Denis (2002). Seek : reports from the edges of America & beyond. New York, NY: Perennial. ISBN 0-06-093047-0. OCLC 50399188.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  17. ^ "Waging War to Keep the Peace: The ECOMOG Intervention and Human Rights (Human Rights Watch Report, June 1993)". Retrieved 2022-09-07.
  18. ^ Rosenau, p. 22
  19. ^ a b c d e "Human Rights in Liberia's Rubber Plantations: Tapping into the Future". United Nations Mission in Liberia (2006). Retrieved 2015-10-01.
  20. ^ a b "Is Bridgestone/Firestone Exploiting Liberian Workers?". CNN.
  21. ^ "Firestone Claim". Archived from the original on 2007-02-06. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
  22. ^ "Firestone Briefing". Archived from the original on 2007-06-28. Retrieved 2011-07-27.
  23. ^ a b "Liberian Controversy". Retrieved 2006-07-30.
  24. ^ a b Mighty Earth (2020). A Bridge Too Far: Social and Environmental Concerns in Bridgestone's Liberian Rubber Plantation and a Plan for Remediation (PDF). Washington, D.C.: Center for International Policy. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 7, 2022. Retrieved September 6, 2022.

References edit

External links edit