The wake-up call comes each morning before 4:30. In the dark, 6,000 weary men follow the faint beams of flashlights to their assigned spaces on a massive farm of rubber trees.
As night melts into day under the harsh West African sun, each worker will tend to as many as 650 trees, collecting sap in a pair of metal buckets hanging from a wooden pole balanced on one shoulder. In one backbreaking day, he'll collect several hundred pounds of the sap, better known as latex, to be shipped to the United States to make tires, surgical gloves, condoms, and countless other goods.
For that he might earn less than $4 from the plantation owner, the tire giant Firestone.
In Liberia, a war-ravaged country with 80 percent unemployment, almost any job is a good one. But Firestone is increasingly under fire from human-rights advocates here and in the United States who say conditions on the 80-year-old plantation in Harbel - Firestone's single-biggest source of raw material for its U.S. manufacturing operations - are scandalous.
The International Labor Rights Fund in Washington has filed a federal suit against Firestone for what it calls "a gulag of misery" on the 200-square-mile estate, believed to be the largest rubber plantation in the world.
The suit alleges that Firestone's Liberian employees are overworked, underpaid, and exposed to pesticides and other hazardous chemicals, and that they risk injury because of inadequate safety measures, such as protective gear to guard against latex dripping into their eyes.
The group also describes harsh living conditions for the workers, known as tappers, and their families. Much of the housing is decades old, with extended families sharing one-room shacks without electricity or toilets while managers live nearby on a comfortable compound featuring a golf course.
The suit, pending before a judge in Indiana, names Nashville-based Firestone and its Japanese parent, Bridgestone Firestone. The company denies the allegations and has asked the judge to dismiss the case; a ruling is expected in early 2007.
Firestone, Liberia's largest private employer, said its workers were paid an average of $5.29 daily, several times more than a civil servant's salary. The pay was set through collective bargaining and is based on the number of trees that each worker taps, although several workers said in interviews that after payroll deductions they often took home less than $4 a day.
Firestone also said it provided primary education and medical care to workers and their families in a country where a brutal 1989-2003 civil war forced most schools and hospitals to close.
"They're good-paying jobs by Liberian standards, and they come with an array of social services that are absolutely essential to people's well-being," said Dan MacDonald, a Firestone spokesman in Nashville.
But many Liberians have long resented Firestone's labor practices. Harbel is itself a Firestone creation, named for founder Harvey Firestone and his wife, Idabelle, after the company signed a 99-year lease in 1926 for one million acres of coastal lowlands, an ideal environment for rubber trees.
The deal made Firestone the biggest private investor in Liberia, and activists say the company has taken advantage of the government's inability to closely monitor conditions on the plantation.
Harvesting rubber is a labor-intensive process in which workers not only tap trees, but also apply pesticides, clean cups and buckets with industrial solvents, and carry latex - as much as 150 pounds at a time - to a site where it is readied for shipment to the United States.
"It's very hard work," said Lablah Paypay, 38, whose leathery hands and sinewy forearms bear witness to 20 years as a tapper. "But I have five children. You have to manage."
In March 2005, a grassroots group called the Save My Future Foundation published a report detailing widespread labor and environmental abuses, including cases of child labor. According to the report, Firestone tappers worked without gloves or other safety materials and faced quotas that often demanded 14-hour workdays - leading many, including Paypay, to enlist their children to help.
The report caught the attention of rights groups worldwide. Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, visited the plantation this year and described some of the housing units as unsatisfactory.
Firestone, which said it did not condone child labor, has responded to the criticism by building several housing facilities and its first high school, and renovating the hospital.
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