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Striking Firestone Workers Accuse Liberian Government of Force and Intimidation

Workers of the Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia say they will continue their strike action until the management of the company recognizes their elected union representatives. The union elected its leaders last July, but the company has refused to meet with them, citing an ongoing legal case at the Liberian Supreme Court as its reason. This, despite the fact the Liberian Ministries of Labor and Agriculture have certified the union election as free, fair, and democratic.

Comfort Willie is the newly elected treasurer general of the Firestone Agricultural Workers’ Union of Liberia. From the Firestone plantation in Harbel, outside Liberia's capital Monrovia, she told VOA that Firestone's management has also refused to pay the elected officials since July this year.

“Since our election, we have not been recognized by management. Reason being they are claiming that Ministry of Labor and GAAWUL (General Agriculture and Allied Workers’ Union of Liberia) are in court. We feel that management is hiding behind the court decision because they and GAWUUL have been having some fishy agreement on the ill treatment of workers in Firestone. Since then Firestone has refused to give the elected officials their ration of food and their money. We have not been paid since July,” she said.

Willie accused the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of engaging in witch-hunting against union members.

“Up to this time, government is still playing their political game along with management spending money in the court to detain and deprive us from having the elected officials in office. And because of that, the right folks are then left vulnerable. They are sacking them every day; they go to work every day and then they are suspended without any good reasons. The ministry of justice gave orders today urging people to go to work by force, or else you will be flogged and be thrown out of your house,” Willie said.

She also accused the government of using force against the workers to intimidate the workers from speaking.

“This gone Saturday, we were at our various homes. Police were sent to our homes, and these police handed three of us – the secretary general, the grievance chairman, and the treasurer general’s rooms were ransacked without any warrant. And they emptied our bags, our money was taken away, and our cell phones. We just got cell phones day before yesterday and we retrieved our old numbers. We know that the government is using force to intimidate us not to speak,” she said.

Willie praised the Liberian Minister of Labor, Samuel Kofi Woods for his involvement in the early stages of the dispute. But she said the minister has since been sidelined and the situation in Firestone has been politicized.

“The minister of labor has done all that they can do, but the whole case has been politicized. Kofi has gone beyond what he was supposed to do. Kofi alone cannot fight this case. Since July Kofi has been to the full front. He has fought this case, but it’s like the forces against his one in this country. A man cannot fight a dozen,” Willie said.

She said despite repeated complaints President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s office has done very little.

“Whatsoever is going on, the president is always informed day to day. She has her NSA (National Security Agency), she has the security on the ground, and she has the justice minister. These people are informed, but they are playing deaf ears. There is no justice in Firestone. There is no union movement free. We are dying as we speak; we are ill treated, mal-treated. We are flogged. Our money was taken away. Come and see the backs of the secretary general and the grievance chairman,” she said.

Willie said the workers would remain on strike until their case can be heard. She accused the Sirleaf government of playing games because she said Firestone supports the president.