Angry workers have downed tools at Liberia’s largest rubber plantation, owned by Bridgestone/Firestone, saying that wages are so low that children as young as seven years old are being forced to help their parents meet production quotas.
Staff at the million-acre plantation told IRIN that 6,000 workers had stopped work since Monday to demand improved living conditions and wages. The strikers comprised 4,000 casual workers who score the rubber trees’ bark to tap them of their latex sap, and 2,000 administrative and domestic staff.
“We are living in the plantation beyond human imagination,” said 57-year old Lawrence Tamba whose mud hut has no electricity or water. “Most of the housing units us tappers live in are dilapidated.”
According to workers at Harbel, which is just outside the capital Monrovia, each labourer is required to tap 650 trees per day in return for US $3.38, leaving many tappers to rely on their children’s unpaid labour to meet quotas.
“Every morning at six I wake up and without eating enough go straight to the rubber plantation to tap latex with my father,” said Junior Fayiah, a skinny lad of 12 years old. “I tote the latex bucket on my head every day. Right now, as I speak to you my neck hurts.”
Latex has been Liberia’s top export since the United Nations imposed a ban on the country’s sales of timber and diamonds during the regime of former warlord turned president Charles Taylor.
The Harbel plantation was hacked out of lush forest under the supervision of company founder Harvey Firestone. Established in 1926, Firestone, now part of the Bridgestone group, is best known for making car tyres, and latex from the Liberian concession was used for Henry Ford’s first mass produced car, the Ford Model-T.
In December, a group of Liberian human rights groups in partnership with the US-based International Labour Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit in the United States against Bridgestone/Firestone, saying “thousands of workers, including minors, toil in virtual slavery at Bridgestone/Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia.”
According to ILRF, Bridgestone/Firestone has issued a directive that child labour would no longer be permitted on the plantation.
“I have six children and they were all born here in the plantation,” Moses Diah said this week. “I wanted them to be educated, but there is no proper schooling for them and four of my children [including a seven-year-old] are forced to help me tap latex every day.”
The plantation has a school, but workers complain that it takes in children up to 14 years of age only and that standards are low.
After 14 years of civil war, Liberia has a new elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who faces the Herculean task of rebuilding the war-ravaged country. International donors have pledged millions of dollars of aid money for putting up schools, hospitals, roads and electricity projects.
Some 80 percent of Liberians are unemployed and illiteracy rates soared during the war years as schools were destroyed and millions of people were displaced in a conflict in which children fought on the front lines.