The Liberian Minister of Labor, Samuel Kofi Woods, has urged both the workers and management of the Firestone Rubber Plantation Company to continue to work together to ensure industrial peace and harmony on the plantation. This followed a Supreme Court ruling over the weekend recognizing as legitimate the recent elections by the workers’ union on the Plantation.
In July this year the union held its first free and independent elections in the 81-year history of Firestone. But the previous company-controlled union challenged the elections in court. Firestone also said it would not recognize the new union leadership while the case was in court.
The company has been the focus of international scrutiny and a lawsuit because of its alleged use of child labor, abuse of worker’s rights and environmental destruction.
Woods told VOA the Supreme Court ruling re-affirms the regulatory and mediation role of the labor ministry.
“From the mediation effort it became very clear that the way forward was to have a democratically elected leadership in order to inspire confidence and trust. The Ministry of Labor after the mediation effort ensured that there were guarantees for an independent, free, and fair transparent election. And for the first time in more than 81 years, workers at Firestone went to the polls and elected their new leaders. The Supreme reversed the decision of the Labor Court and these elections were upheld. It has vindicated the ministry of labor intervention in this process. It has also served to uphold the supremacy of respect for the rule of law,” he said.
Woods hoped the Supreme Court ruling would now pave the way for the Firestone management and the workers to begin negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement.
“What will happen is that with a legitimately elected leadership, we can now commence the collective bargaining agreement which defines the rights and obligations of workers as well as that of the management so that the issues of wages and other improved working conditions will be discussed and dialogue will be guaranteed in the best atmosphere possible,” Woods said.
Firestone has been the focus of international scrutiny and a lawsuit because of its alleged use of child labor, abuse of worker’s rights and environmental destruction.
Woods said Firestone is involved in a two-track negotiation with the government and with the workers.
“There are two things. One is the concession agreement, which has been and is still being negotiated between the Liberian government and the Firestone Rubber Plantation Company. The second agreement is the one between the management and the workers on issues of conditions of work, wages, and other vital issues…it was suspended because of the various crises, the issue of trust and the issue of competence in the leadership of the union. With these elections that have been declared transparent, free and fair by the international local observers and have been affirmed and upheld by the Supreme Court, we are not on the road to ensuring that there is a legitimate leadership acceptable by the majority of the workers to articulate their views within the context of the collective bargaining process,” he said.
Woods described the Supreme Court ruling as the dawning of a new day in Liberia labor relations. He appealed to the management of Firestone and the workers to continue to work together.
“At this stage we can only urge both the workers and the management of the Firestone Rubber Plantation to continue to cooperate to ensure industrial peace and harmony at the plantation. It is in the interest of Liberia, the workers and the management to ensure that this happens,” Woods said.