Human rights activists will hold a demonstration Wednesday in Washington in front of a public relations office representing the Bridgestone/Firestone Rubber Company. Today's protest comes on the heel of a new report which accuses the company of a wide range of abuses on its plantation in Liberia.
The report, titled "The Heavy Load: A Demand for Fundamental Changes at the Bridgestone/Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia" was published by the Liberia-based Save My Future Foundation. It cites poor living conditions for rubber tappers, barriers to educational and health access, water and air pollution, and violations of workers' right to organize.
The report and Wednesday's planned protest come as the Firestone workers' union is negotiating with management for better wages and other benefits.
Edwin Cisco is secretary general of the Firestone Agricultural Workers' Union of Liberia (FAWUL). He told VOA that while Firestone has made some changes since the election of a new workers' union last year, a lot more still needs to be done on the plantation.
"As I speak to you, there is an ongoing union-management contract negotiations between the company and the new leadership of FAWUL to address most of those issues that we have been agitating for over the years, issues relating to work quota, and also issues relating to occupational health and safety, issues relating to education as well as issues relating to salaries and wages," he said.
The new report said Firestone rubber tappers work 12 hours a day without safety equipment and that under the so-called quota system, each tapper is required to tap 750 trees per day or 1,125 trees on a double tapping day.
Cisco said workers have had to enlist the services of their children or other family members in order to complete their daily quotas.
"What we were able to do is that we injected in our proposal that the quota be reduced because it is because of this quota that most workers have to carry their families into the field to do the work. As we speak to you, even though the company has a zero tolerance on child labor, the system still exists to the point where workers, now they are not carrying children, but they have to hire extra hand to assist them complete the quota for the day," Cisco said.
While the price of rubber is at one of its highest on the world market, Cisco said Firestone rubber tappers continue to earn 42 cents an hour or an estimated US$3.38 per day.
"In terms of wages, Firestone continues to maintain her old system to maintain the cost of production at a very, very minimum level. The last contract negotiation between the management and the union I think was in 2004. At that point the sale of a ton of rubber was at US$400. Today, the sale of a ton of rubber is selling at something like US$1,200. If we take all of that into consideration, definitely there's a need for the income of the workers to move upward," he said.
In the area of education for workers' children, Cisco said while Firestone has been able to renovate and construct additional schools, some parts of the plantation still do not have schools.
"As I speak to you, the company has taken several steps. They are now building additional schools even though there is still a need for schools in various areas of the plantation where students have to walk various miles to go to school. The school system has been pushed to high level. They have put science and computer labs. But we still feel that this needs to go all around the plantation so that every child will have the opportunity to have access to some of these facilities," he said.
He also said the workers' union has been pushing Firestone management to provide a busing system so that children whose communities have no schools can attend nearby schools.
Cisco credited the workers' successes at recent negotiations to two factors, including the involvement of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government.
"One of the factors that is responsible for this is the workers' desire to come together. Once they come together, they know that something can be achieved. The other factor has to do with our own government. In the past successive governments in our country had been unconcerned about the conditions under which workers work on the plantation. But this new government under the leadership of Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has shown the political will to ensure that workers' voices are heard," Cisco said.
He also praised the involvement of international labor organizations, including the United Steele Workers' Union, the American Labor Solidarity Center, the International Labor Rights Fund and others for helping to build the capacity of FAWUL.
Cisco advised workers in other countries to always come together in their effort to seek better wages and other benefits.
"What I would say is that workers must come together. Once workers come together in unity, they have the strength to move things forward because the bottom line is that these multinationals that exist all over the world, their basic interest is for their profit margin to move upward. But once they make the profit, they must ensure that workers have a fair share of it," he said.