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Liberia's May Day Marked by Strike at Firestone Tire Company

As workers around the world mark May Day, in Liberia, a strike is ongoing at the rubber plantations of the Firestone tire company, highlighting long standing problems between the country's biggest private employer and its workforce. VOA's Nico Colombant has the story from Dakar, with additional reporting by Prince Collins in Monrovia.

Angry workers at Firestone have clashed several times with police during a strike now entering its second week.

A protest leader, Ida Collins, expressed her dismay.

Several others were arrested. Protest leaders are asking for their release, as well as higher salaries and the removal of a top manager.

James Makor, a Monrovia human rights activist, says Firestone, a subsidiary of Japanese tire giant Bridgestone, has also prevented the establishment of a union independent of management.

"Firestone will do everything to suppress workers on grounds that they do not want rapid change into their system," he said. "They want their people to remain silent so they can use them as much as they want to, to maximize their own systems."

Firestone has been operating in Liberia since 1926. It has repeatedly been accused by international labor groups of shoddy treatment of its workforce.

"Firestone when it started, there was a virtual agreement between it and the government of Liberia to recruit workers, illiterate workers from the interior, more or less on a forced labor basis, and the modifications have been minimal," explained Byron Tar, a former government official.

Information Minister Laurence Konmla Bropleh says that with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf now at the helm of Liberia it is not business as usual.

"The workers cannot be subjected to dehumanizing conditions, that is one aspect of it. The other aspect is how is management [is] treating them in terms of their employment circumstances," he said.

"The Ministry of Labor, and Ministry of Agriculture, are at the current moment working with Firestone to make sure these various concerns are hammered out and that the proper solutions have been in the interest of workers, yet understanding the Firestone investment needs to be protected. But we will not protect the Firestone investment at the detriment of the Liberian workforce," he added.

But some Liberian lawmakers, like Dave Kumeh, believe the government should be more pro-business and prevent any outbreaks of violence by workers.

"When the investors know that we are operating here in confusion, in the midst of violence, and what not, definitely they will not be encouraged to come here, to improve our economy, to bring about development, to bring about jobs, and facilities and what not," said Kumeh.

Firestone's concession agreement was renegotiated during Liberia's post-war transitional period, but is being reviewed again.

The government is also looking into complaints chemicals from the plantations are causing serious environmental degradation to local waterways.

Officials from Firestone refused requests to be interviewed for this report. They have said they are continually striving to improve the conditions of the workforce and deny wrongdoing.