“To you, Firestone is just a brand. Where I come from, it is someone’s life – everything they will ever know”
A Liberian friend
Firestone Tire and Rubber Plantation’s history is painfully enlaced with Liberia’s.
In 1920s, the Liberian government was on the verge of bankruptcy and under severe pressure from international creditors for repaying a US$ 2 million debt.
Along came Firestone. It bargained with the government for a lease of one million acres of land for one hundred years. The price? 6 cents an acre, plus 1% in tax on the value of the exported rubber, giving the company unlimited control over 10% of Liberia’s total arable land. Included in the contract was the infamous Clause (K), which conditioned the deal on a loan from Firestone to the government of Liberia of $5 million at an interest rate of 7% (that was 2% higher than the interest rate on any of Liberia’s other debts).
Cornered and careless, the government signed.
Firestone became Liberia’s biggest private employer, running one of the world’s largest rubber plantations. By 1960, there were as many as 20,000 workers in Harbel (the plantation site, renamed after Firestone founder Harvey and his wife Idabelle), living in unspeakable conditions of poverty. Think 6 people sharing the floor of a one-room hut, working interminable hours, without latrines, electricity nor drinking water. That kind of poverty. (On the other hand the $3 daily wage is 3 times more earnings than what 38% of Liberians earn).
During the civil war, rubber was Liberia’s only extractive industry not subject to international sanctions. Firestone made payments to warlord Charles Taylor and kept the plantations running.
The war ended. But tappers continued to work and live in conditions described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “gulags of misery”. The International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit in 2005 against Firestone for the poor and dangerous working conditions they subjected the tappers to, as well as child labor: tappers had to collect a certain quota of rubber per day – quotas so high that the only way to reach them was to enlist their children to the task. In 2006, the United Nations Mission in Liberia released a report describing similar findings, and noting that workers’ housing provided by Firestone had not been renovated since the 1920s. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also found Firestone guilty of human rights abuses and economic crimes.
Finally, Firestone Agricultural Workers’ Union of Liberia was created. From 2008 to 2010, the union successfully secured two collective bargaining agreements for the workers. This improved wages and working conditions for workers, banned child labor and increased access to primary education for children on the plantation. But the fight continues, and includes accusations of severe environmental degradation and health hazards.
When I visited the plantation a few weeks ago, driving twenty miles east of Monrovia, the only thing I saw was quaint redbrick houses with well-tended grass and a beautiful, perfectly maintained gulf course: the managers’ quarters. The dense forest of neatly aligned rubber trees hides the workers’ village deep in its belly, far from the accessible roads.
What chance do governments starved for revenues stand in the face of multinationals hungry for its resources? How to protect workers rights when the only thing worse than working for Firestone is –arguably – not working for Firestone? Or do governments in developing countries underestimate their bargaining power?
There is no counterfactual to determine if the generations of Firestone workers and the Liberian government would have been better or worse off without the company. But that Firestone, with annual revenues of US$ 2.09 billion (2004), could have done better is undeniable.