The government of Liberia is negotiating with Firestone over a new concession agreement with the rubber producer. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been pushing for a new agreement with Firestone since she came into office. The government recently signed a new contract with Dutch-based steel conglomerate Arcelor Mittal, another key investor in the country. Selah Hennessy reports from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The new contract will replace a deal signed between U.S-based Firestone, a subsidiary of the Japanese tire company Bridgestone, and Liberia's transitional government in 2005.

Patrick Alley of London-based watchdog group Global Witness says the 2005 agreement is one-sided and must be changed. But he is optimistic that the new government is pushing for a more balanced agreement.

"I think that President Sirleaf is showing more leadership in this area than almost anyone I can think of. And she said very early on she would re-negotiate deals signed during that transitional period and she is keeping to that," said Alley.

Information Minister Dr. Laurence Konmla Bropleh says the government wants to keep Firestone in Liberia, but agrees that changes will have to be made to the agreement.

"We do not mind having Firestone here but we want to make sure that Firestone's agreement, by which it operates, will conform to the norm and standards of what this government believes the country needs to go," he said.

Speaking as workers continue a strike at the rubber plantation near Monrovia, he says improved rights for workers must be central to a new agreement.

Firestone has repeatedly denied it abuses its workers, and says it strives to improve their working conditions.

But the striking workers, whose union has been set up by management, say they have no way to establish an independent union under the current contract

Some activists, like Robert Nyahn of the Liberian Forest and Human Rights Campaign, say big changes are needed .

"Let them make holistic change and not put in cosmetic changes just to paint themselves white on the outside while their inside is very black," said Nyahn.

Firestone is Liberia's biggest private-sector employer with at least 6,000 workers.