HARBEL, Liberia—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 that he balances 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 American 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 the conditions on the 80-year-old plantation—the single-biggest source of raw material for Firestone's U.S. manufacturing operations—are a scandal.
The International Labor Rights Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, has filed a federal class-action suit against Firestone for what it calls "a gulag of misery" on the 200-square-mile estate in Harbel—believed to be the largest rubber plantation in the world.
The lawsuit alleges that Firestone's Liberian employees are overworked, underpaid, exposed to pesticides and other hazardous chemicals, and risk injury because of inadequate safety measures, such as a lack of 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 federal judge in Indiana, names the Nashville, Tenn.-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, says its workers are 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 interviewed recently said that after payroll deductions they often took home less than $4 for a day's work.
Firestone also says that it provides 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. The town of Harbel is itself a Firestone creation. It's named for founder Harvey Firestone and his wife, Idabelle, after the company signed a 99-year lease in 1926 for 1 million acres of coastal lowlands, an ideal environment for planting rubber trees.
The deal made Firestone the biggest private investor in Liberia, and activists say that over the years the company has taken advantage of the government's inability to closely monitor conditions on the massive 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 transport latex—up to 150 pounds at a time—on foot to a central site, where it's readied for shipment to the U.S.
"It's very hard work," said Lablah Paypay, a 38-year-old 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 were subjected to 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 says it doesn't condone child labor, has responded to the criticism by building several housing facilities and its first high school, and renovating the hospital.
Samuel Kofi Woods, a prominent human rights lawyer who was recently appointed minister of labor, said the efforts were a step in the right direction. Woods has accused Firestone of engaging in "modern-day slavery," but says that successive Liberian regimes tolerated the abuses.
"Government officials were in the pockets of Firestone management," Woods said. "We have produced corrupt leaders that were not accountable. So we also share the blame."
As Liberia tries to recover from its civil war, which killed some 250,000 people and decimated the lucrative iron and timber industries, Johnson-Sirleaf has initiated reviews of all contracts involving natural resources. That includes the Firestone deal, which company officials recently had extended to 2042 to recuperate losses from the war, when various rebel groups occupied parts of the plantation.
Firestone has proposed investing $100 million over 10 years to rehabilitate the plantation, but government officials want it to take place over five years. The review of the lease is ongoing and officials declined to discuss specifics.
Whatever the outcome, with Liberia's economy still a long way from recovery, many are resigned to their Firestone jobs for lack of anything better.
"It's the only opportunity I have," said Junior Tokpah, who fled his village in eastern Liberia during the war and took a job at Firestone in the hope of one day returning to school. Now married and the father of an 18-month-old girl, Tokpah, 29, said he doesn't know if he'll ever get off the plantation.
"In our country you are young, then you get married, then you have children and then you die," he said. "There are no other prospects. That's why I can't complain about this work too much."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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