Friday, August 19, 2011

Firestone Plantations escapes justice

By: ralph geeplay
U.S. : Rights campaigners rally against Firestone

The Liberian based Firestone plantations company, few week ago won a land mark case in federal courts in the United States. The class action lawsuit brought originally by International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), in 2005 on behalf of 23 children was thrown out by federal magistrates for the second time. No matter the defeat, analysts say, the lights are now being shown on this company; and that gradually people have woken up to Firestone and its viciousness.

The Firestone lawyer Terry Collingsworth was the most surprised at the verdict, that his client had escaped justice, saying “we won the war, but lost the battle.” The International Rights Advocates, an offshoot of the ILRF that have assumed the case said they were still considering their options for an appeal. The case must be further pursued observers contend, because justice must be demanded against Firestone in the U.S., a country that speaks loudly about the rule of law and the moral dictates of humanity. “There is plenty of juice still in the bottle, which could make Firestone wobble under its own weight! The facts are there, just find an excellent excavator and he will dig up the dirt,” says a Liberian rights activist.
“For almost a century the company colluded with successive Liberian governments in abusing the rights of poor destitute citizens on its plantations. The Firestone merely put, is a fiend, and its treatment of the workers on its plantations has been shameful, and the noise in the market that it is reforming must not be taken for gold,” he concluded. The landmark case though, made no news in Liberia.

Reports say, the law suit was first filed under the authority of the “Alien Tort Statute of 1789,” an American Act. According to American legal scholars, The Alien Tort Statute bestows federal jurisdiction to "any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." United States courts therefore, look for "customary international law" wrong doings to determine if an infringement has transpired, legal practitioners have said.
This had the American company arguing through its lawyers in the district court that corporations could not be sued under that statute. The district court agreed, and “granted Firestone’s motion for summary judgment.” Not satisfied the ILRF took its case to the Appeals Court of the Seventh Circuit, hence the latest ruling.

While Judge Richard Posner is a brilliant jurist, according to legal scholars, his argument that Liberian children being enslaved on the plantation are well off than their average Liberian counterparts is regrettable. Said Posner in the 24 page ruling in which he was the writer, "Conceivably, because the fathers of the children on the plantation are well paid by Liberian standards, even the children who help their fathers with the work are, on balance, better off than the average Liberian child, and would be worse off if their fathers, [were] unable to fill their daily quotas, lost their jobs or had to pay adult helpers, thus reducing the family's income," the acclaimed judge wrote. But he took pains to also disagree with the district court that it sided with Firestone. The company he said could be sued under the alien tort law of 1789.

For years, Liberian laborers on the plantation of this North American behemoth have been mistreated and taken for granted while successive Liberian governments looked the other way. The appalling squalor and intense labor to which these hard working men, women and children have been subjected, speaks of a corporation, where its synergy and energy are directed towards profits in totality only.
Children at work on the plantation

For Liberia, a country supposedly founded on the premise of freedom, it is totally baffling, the many crimes that have been perpetrated in the West African nation by Firestone especially against the poor. How is it possible to present a quota so enormous that Firestone expects its laborers to tapped 650 trees a day per individual? Going by that logic, some assumes that’s 21 hours work a day. The fifteen years war aside; we can say emphatically that there has been state sponsored terrorism by previous Liberian administrations against its own people for encouraging Firestone’s behavior. These many challenges present a test case for successive Liberian governments. Moving the country beyond the contours of graft, poor labor regulations, workers rights, and good wages remain a dream that has eluded the country for so long.

Liberians and the international community are now paying special attention to these developments. In 2006 the Liberian government, standing up to Firestone perhaps for the first time release a report in which it cited the abuses and living standards of the average Liberian on the plantation as dismal. For the record Bridgestone, Firestone parent company made 1.45billion in profits last year, while it pays its worker 3.50dollars a day. The company counters that by saying its employees are amongst the highest paid in the country, to which, a University of Liberia student in Monrovia said, “excuse me…if you even pay them more considering your profits, who would take you to jail?”

To look back and see why and how the abuses on these plantations began would amused the cursory observer: This company came to Liberia in 1926 with a hefty agreement from the Liberian government of the day, a ninety nine year lease deal, one million acres of land, and six cent cents an acre.
The American corporate giant was promised in the aforementioned agreement to pay no rent on less than 20,000 acres in five years. With an agreement as generous as what firestone got, you would think the company would be a responsible corporate entity and community leader. But no, the company had its own scheme: suffocate the Liberian worker, while reaping latex for American and world markets for profits.
In a Liberia where illiteracy rate is shooting at astronomical heights, Firestone was fulfilling it noble objectives by using child labor on its plantations in as much the parents of these children were meeting their daily quotas of 650 trees a day.

Through out the 1990s and early 2000s, it continues to buy latex from former combatants illegally, although denying it didn’t, which the government released report unearthed with child soldiers at the center of the chaos, because as Firestone purchase the illegal latex from child soldiers, they more likely would use arms to get their booty from surrounding plantations owned by private individuals. It was fueling another conflict as Liberia sought peace after a turbulent civil war. Meanwhile the jewels of the country—its children already marginalized by warring factions during the country long running civil war and made to bear arms were still languishing under the anguish of Firestone, working heavy hours and carrying tons of loads of rubber on their heads.

Not only has Firestone engaged in child labor over the years, it has also practiced forced labor. The international and local media have always reported slave labor like working conditions on the Firestone Plantations Company.
Other companies over the years have learned from the Firestone experiment: abuse the environment, disregard workers rights, engaged in child labor, and an inept government only interested in sitting in Monrovia with hands folded between its laps will do nothing to protect its own people.

The ILRF reported in 2009 that “Firestone has been associated with pollution for decades with human rights organizations and environmental groups calling on the company to properly disposed the chemicals used in the processing of its rubber” the account narrated that about six towns located near Harbel, the headquarters of the company were complaining about polluting their drinking water. “Don Jar, an elderly woman in an angry tone remarked: ‘Firestone want for us to die so they finished putting all the bad bad things in our water. So we just suppose to die now because nothing we can do, our basket can’t catch fish again”.

Harvey Firestone
In 1926, when the company signed its landmark agreement with the Liberian government it calls for employing 350,000 Liberians, which at the times seems to be the entire adult male working population in the country. Critics charged that this was a recipe for disaster in a sparsely populated West African Country such as Liberia, but no one listened.
A prize the nation would pay with its children in successive years. Harvey Firestone, the general mastermind of the Firestone enterprise is on record to have said the labor in the country was plentiful and inexhaustible. He was wrong, especially in the absence of better wages and living conditions per population ratio. In his highly praised worked, The Native Problem in Africa, (London: F. Cass, 1965) Raymond Leslie Buell surfaced as one of those persons not too found of the Firestone Liberia’s enterprise.

Firestone: children at work

Buell narrates, that Firestone Plantations Company had an agreement with the Liberian Labor Bureau (now Labor Ministry), wherein the company was compensating district commissioners to acquire labor through chiefs. Buell, an American intellectual schooled at Harvard University, believed this system was similar to other African countries run by European colonizers where forced labor was being used. He came to the conclusion, that the company was “making it financially worthwhile for the government and the chiefs to keep the plantations supplied.” Such has been the deeds of this North American giant that prides itself and its “long history with the Liberian people.”

Even Richard Posner and his panel of three judges, who recently give the Firestone company a disinclined pass were tied by the American laws he interpreted, say some analysts, because a clear case against the company is there to be persecuted when he wrote, “
It is neither surprising nor significant that corporate liability hasn't figured in prosecutions of war criminals and other violators of customary international law.’That doesn't mean that corporations are exempt from that law."

When a person has to work 650 trees a day to meet a specific slice just to make about three dollars a day, you wonder what in the world. Although the company now claims that quota (650 trees) per individual no longer exist, it is still not clear what it current policy regarding that issue is. Justice must be demanded against Firestone in
U.S. courts, it is just but the right thing to do.

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