By Christopher Berardino
June 21, 2012—In Liberia, unions are working to ensure worker rights are preserved and protected in the country’s rubber industry and beyond. Edwin Cisco, general secretary of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), says his union is focused on three specific remedies for issues facing Liberian rubber and other workers.
||Despite a provision in FAWUL's latest contract that creates a motorized transport system, most rubber workers still must still lug full buckets of latex to weigh stations. Photo by Marilyn Brown, USW
During a lunchtime briefing last Thursday at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., Cisco said that he and FAWUL are pressing for enactment of labor law reform and, for Firestone rubber workers, reduction of latex production quotas and motorization of the transport system for bringing latex in from the far reaches of the plantation.
FAWUL has made significant gains in promoting decent work and eliminating child labor at Firestone. As Cisco noted, “Today the plantation is completely rid of child labor.” In addition to working to enact a zero-tolerance child labor policy at Firestone, FAWUL has secured education for the children of plant workers. “[FAWUL] pressed the company to build schools for the workers’ children,” said Cisco. “These schools are now the educational standard.”
Despite these gains in the rubber industry, the labor movement in Liberia is still nascent. The proposed labor law reform effort, called the Decent Work Bill, is supported by President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s administration and by Liberian unions and would help strengthen worker rights and the local labor movement. However, Cisco said, parliament has left the legislation to stagnate, failing to enact the measure. The Decent Work Bill addresses issues such as a minimum wage and precarious work. “Without this law it is very difficult for unions to improve the lives of working people,” Cisco said.
For rubber workers at Firestone, Cisco is pushing for the full implementation of a motorized transportation system for raw latex, a provision in FAWUL’s most recent collective bargaining agreement that should have ended decades of backbreaking labor. Though an experimental system has been in place for the past 15 months, it is not being used throughout the 200-square-mile plantation. Rubber workers must still lug full buckets of latex to weigh stations. An effective transportation system would both reduce injury and increase productivity, said Cisco. “Workers must no longer carry 150 pounds of latex on their shoulders,” he said.
Reducing production quotas and hiring more employees also are key to protecting worker rights at the plantation, said Cisco. By reducing the latex quota to a manageable amount and hiring more workers, each employee would be able to work more efficiently with fewer accidents while maintaining productivity. Reducing quotas would also help to ensure child labor does not return to Firestone and could aid in reducing child labor at rubber supply operations elsewhere.
With so much interest by foreign companies to invest in Liberia, unions have an opportunity to cement fair labor practices from the outset. As one of the largest and strongest unions in Liberia, FAWUL is working tirelessly to see these recommendations come to fruition. “Whatever we do at Firestone,” said Cisco, “will spread to all workers.”