Firestone, a multinational rubber manufacturing giant known for its automobile tires, has come under fire from human rights and environmental groups for its alleged use of child labor and slave-like working conditions at a plantation in Liberia.
Recently, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, filed a lawsuit charging that thousands of workers, including minors, toil in virtual slavery at Bridgestone's Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia.
According to the complaint filed in the United States District Court in Venice, California, Firestone, which has operated in the West African country since the 1920s, largely depends on poor and often illiterate workers to tap tons of raw latex from rubber trees using primitive tools exposing them to hazardous pesticides and fertilizers.
At Firestone, "all of the workers are poverty-stricken Africans, enduring extremely inhuman conditions under the constant guard of American and now Japanese overseers who live in the finest houses in Liberia, looking down on the field hands from their verandahs and the company's private golf course," the group says.
By contrast, "most of the workers have never been off of the plantation and do not even know that the world has moved on and slavery has been abolished."
The company denies the use of child labor and claims that its jobs are among the highest paying in Liberia. But right activists who have visited the plantation attest to the desperation and fear conveyed by Firestone's workers.
"I have seen six people living in one room, without any toilet, electricity, or running water," Jerome Verdier, an environmental lawyer from Liberia, told OneWorld. "The company has no justification whatsoever to keep on exploiting those people."
Verdier and others say thousands of workers at the plantation cannot meet daily harvesting quota without unpaid aid, requiring them to put their own children to work or face starvation.
In many cases, activists say, Firestone overseers not only know about the massive use of child labor, but also compel it. "Workers are told that if they can't make their daily quota, they should put their children to work," the lawsuit charges.
According to the ILRF, each official worker at the Firestone plantation is required to deliver 450 pounds of latex per day to meet quota, an amount many adult workers fail to produce.
"They work for $3.19 a day and work close to 20 hours every day," Verdier told a news conference at the U.N. headquarters in New York Wednesday.
Most plantation workers, according to the lawsuit, remain "at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to health care to education. They risk expulsion and starvation if they raise even minor complaints, and the company makes willful use of this situation to exploit these workers as they have since 1926."
The 240 square-mile plantation has an official workforce of 6,000, out of which at least 4,000 are reportedly facing extremely inhumane conditions.
The group decided to bring the case before a U.S. court because the judicial system in Liberia had been crippled by years of civil war, activists said.
After a peace agreement recently bought to a close 14 years of political turmoil, Liberians went to the polls last month, choosing Africa's first democratically elected female president, Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Sirleaf, who defeated international soccer star George Weah in the final round of balloting, has promised to create jobs and fight corruption.
Activists say they hope the new government will take positive steps to ensure that multinational corporations, such as Firestone, are prevented from using exploitative labor and start abiding by human rights and environmental laws.
"The country is emerging from war," Verdier said, adding that Firestone's story is just one of many similar cases. "Multinational corporations continue to undermine human rights and democracy. That has to be stopped."
Sharing this view, Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank based in Washington, noted that the changed political reality in Liberia is already demanding a substantial change in corporate behavior.
"Liberia needs to have the resources to get back on its feet," she said. "It's time for multinational corporations to realize the needs of Liberia's citizens."
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