The National Health Workers Union of Liberia (NAHWUL) warns that healthcare workers and other citizens are at increased risk as President George Weah’s increasingly unpopular administration continues to shed public-sector jobs—including 448 healthcare workers last month—even as the COVID-19 pandemic gathers steam. As of April 5, 2020, Liberia is reporting 13 confirmed cases and three deaths, which NAHWUL says includes one healthcare worker’s confirmed diagnosis and the death of another.
“This is no time to reduce medical capacity, especially during a global pandemic,” said NAHWUL Assistant Secretary-General, Deemi T. Dearzrua, adding that the union is concerned not only about the livelihoods of its members and their dependents, but the lives of citizens needing medical care.
NAHWUL reports that 448 of its members—or almost 4 percent of the union’s membership—last month were forced to leave their jobs and accept a pension without the legally-required notice period and even though they did not meet the criteria for forced retirement. Under the law governing public sector workers in Liberia, workers are entitled to three-months’ notice and are not eligible for compulsory retirement until age 65 or completion of 25 years’ service. Those who lost their jobs include doctors, nurses and pharmacists.
“Nobody knew the jobs were gone until our pensioned-off members called to inquire about their unpaid February pay,” said Dearzrua, adding that the union needs government to communicate with NAHWUL about changes affecting its members.
NAHWUL says the capacity of its remaining members is also at risk because they are being expected to report for work without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), training on how to safely treat contagious patients or government-provided COVID-19 information. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, Liberia lost 8 percent of its doctors, nurses and midwives to Ebola. A 2015 WHO survey found that healthcare workers in three West Africa countries were between 21 times and 32 times more likely to be infected with Ebola than people in the general population.
The Liberian government has not paid many public-sector workers’ February and March salaries, including those of healthcare workers, whose salaries were reduced last year under a so-called wage harmonization program. The salary-reduction program, which the government claims was necessitated by loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), last year led to strikes by teachers, healthcare workers and others.
In Liberia, the Solidarity Center supports NAHWUL’s advocacy for bargaining rights, conducts basic trade union training for its members and educates healthcare women workers about gender issues and their rights.
After more than 10 years of partnership with agricultural workers on the Firestone Liberia rubber plantation in Harbel, the company is increasingly backtracking, including the unilateral firing of 13 percent of its workforce, says the Agriculture Agro-Processing and Industrial Workers Union of Liberia (AAIWUL). As the country’s largest employer—and therefore its employment-standards trendsetter—the union says the company’s reversal is having devastating consequences on the livelihood, rights and dignity of Liberia’s workers.
“Although we want jobs, we want good jobs,” said AAIWUL General Secretary Edwin Cisco. “Firestone Liberia is key.”
Workers’ gains on the Firestone Liberia plantation have increased in successive negotiated agreements with the company since 2008, including an end to child labor, improved pay, lower daily production quotas for rubber tappers, mechanized transportation of latex, improved housing, free education for workers’ children and access to medical clinics for workers and their families. The company’s partnership with its workers and subsequent improvements in conditions and pay have set country-wide standards for acceptable conditions of work.
“Generation after generation of workers suffered. We cannot go back,” said Cisco.
Unfortunately, since former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership ended in 2018, Firestone Liberia is increasingly reversing direction. The company, AAIWUL says, is reneging on its promises and undermining the union with unlawful dismissals of its leaders and large-scale layoffs of full-time union members, who are being hired back as contract workers.
“They are paid off with pain in their hearts,” said AAIWUL President Abraham Nimene.
Firestone Liberia is setting a bad example for other employers investing in the country, including multinational palm oil companies such as Golden Veroleum, which AAIWUL is organizing. Workers harvesting palm oil sought the union’s help to remedy appalling conditions—including workers’ use of dangerous chemicals without personal protection or other safety measures.
In the union’s most serious challenge, Firestone Liberia is increasingly funneling full-time union members into informal contract positions. 320 workers laid off earlier this year were rehired as contractors, joining 2,505 other contractors already working without the benefits accruing to full-time workers. Contract employees are doing the same work as full-time workers, says AAIWUL, for less pay, under worse conditions and without the wages, benefits and social protections enjoyed by full-time workers who are represented by the union. The company says that more layoffs are coming next month.
“They are going to turn the entire workforce into precarious work, and we can’t allow this to happen,” said Nimene.
By AAIWUL’s calculations, 830 jobs have been lost so far this year, after Firestone imposed transfers to contract positions, lay-offs and forced retirements. Although the company says job losses are caused by concessions it made to the country under the Sirleaf government as well as low natural rubber production and decreasing global natural rubber prices, AAIWUL criticizes the company’s lack of transparency in its financial hardship claim. Wages remain low, says AAIWUL. Although president and managing director of Firestone-Liberia, Edmundo Garcia, told the Liberia House of Representatives in 2018 that the lowest wage paid to locally hired workers is $8.36 per day, AAIWUL says that the company’s minimum daily wage for local hires is only $5.60 per day. Production on the plantation continues, said Cisco, but with increasingly exploited, precarious workers.
“We want … the basic labor rights of workers maintained,” he said.
Firestone Liberia, an indirect subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas Inc., is the largest contiguous natural-rubber producing operation in the world. The company supplies Bridgestone with raw and block latex with which to manufacture tires in the United States.
A series of agreements between workers and Firestone Liberia between 2008 through 2019 addressed conditions described in a 2006 human rights lawsuit against the company as “the modern equivalent of slavery.” After a more than one-year struggle, Firestone Liberia plantation workers signed their first agreement with the company in 2008, marking the first time the company’s workers were represented by an independent union in Firestone Liberia’s 82-year history.
Benefiting hundreds of miners, forklift drivers and other workers, the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL) and ArcelorMittal Liberia (AML)—part of global steel giant ArcelorMittal group—signed their fourth labor contract in Monrovia December 14. The three-year contract includes a 14.5 percent wage increase over the duration of the contract as well as a sexual harassment clause to protect workers, especially women. The contract continues workers’ effort to close the wage gap between resident and expatriate workers, who can receive up to 10 times the salary for the same work.
“While these unions have very little in the way of material resources, they have shown themselves to be unstoppable when it comes to building union power and mobilizing their members,” says Fred Redmond, president of the United Steelworkers (USW), which supports organizing efforts with UWUL, a Solidarity Center ally.
According to Redmond, UWUL is having significant impact on workers in Liberia beyond its footprint through a “surge of organizing” at several new mining operations and—through a new contract—providing momentum for workers currently negotiating with Firestone Liberia and Golden Veroleum’s palm oil farms.
Two wildcat strikes broke out at an AML mine in Yekepa, Nimba County, earlier this year when workers protested low wages, wage theft, job insecurity, lack of healthcare, poor housing and lack of schooling for workers’ children. Members of the Liberia House of Representatives last month voted to audit AML to investigate its compliance with its Mineral Development Agreement (MDA) with the government of Liberia, which requires the company to establish and maintain medical and education facilities for employees, their families and the broader community, and to prioritize the employment and development of local Liberians.
AML ranks fifth in size of 25 ArcelorMittal mining companies worldwide. The company has about 300,000 employees in 60 countries around the world, including Brazil, Bosnia, Canada, France, Mexico, Ukraine and the United States.
In Liberia, the Solidarity Center and the USW partner with workers in key extractive industries such as mining, timber and rubber, as well as with domestic workers, to enable unions to better serve their members and organize additional workers. UWUL began organizing AML in 2008 with training and support from the Solidarity Center and USW, winning the right to represent workers in 2009. The workers’ first agreement with AML was negotiated in 2012.
For the first time, the Liberian labor movement was an organized and active participant in the country’s presidential election, engaging in get-out-the-vote efforts and monitoring polling sites.
Asserting their right to participate in the democratic process, 50 people associated with Liberia’s labor federation, the Liberia Labor Congress (LLC), helped monitor 10 precincts and more than 40 polling places in and around Monrovia, the capital, and on a rubber plantation in Harbel last week, as Liberians went to the polls. Election monitors, including from locals affiliated with the United Steelworkers and the United Steelworkers Canada (USW) reported that the process was fair, if disorganized in places, and that Liberia’s unions ran a successful get-out-the vote campaign targeting workers.
This year the LLC and its affiliated unions engaged in voter registration drives, focusing on places where there is a high concentration of union members, such as mining areas in Nimba County, the port city of Buchanan and Harbel, Marigbi County, location of a major rubber plantation.
Unions must participate in the democratic process said election monitor Jackie Doe, women’s chair-elect of the LLC. We must promote good leadership, she said, “for the well-being of the workers of Liberia.”
On the rubber plantation, worker election teams were well-organized, according to Mike Zielinski, USW Local 3657, facilitating a smoother voting process than seen in other parts of the country. Union families turned out in large numbers, he said, sending a message that elected officials must represent working people.
On election day, union observers encouraged voters frustrated with long lines at some polling stations to stay in line and reminded officials that everyone in line at 6 p.m., when the polls closed, was still entitled to vote, per the country’s election guidelines.
The election saw more than 2.1 million voters choosing among 20 candidates vying to succeed Africa’s first female president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has overseen 12 years of peace in a country that was previously ravaged by two civil wars.
Election authorities announced on October 17 that, because no one candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, a presidential runoff is scheduled for November 7. Former international soccer superstar George Weah and Vice President Joseph Boakai will face off in the second round.
Member of ArcelorMittal Liberia Workers Union. Credit: Solidarity Center/Christopher Johnson
Hundreds of miners, forklift drivers and other workers at ArcelorMittal in Libera recently regained the jobs they lost following the 2014 Ebola epidemic and won back important benefits as part of a new collective bargaining agreement.
The ArcelorMittal Liberia Workers Union and the company late last month entered into the two-year agreement, which continues a joint health and safety committee and opened the door to higher wages through, “comprehensive job mapping to adjust salaries where they are inconsistent with the positions,” according to the union.
The United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL) helped negotiate the agreement, and signed on behalf of the ArcelorMittal Liberia Workers Union. The workers’ chief negotiator and team members on this agreement had all participated in Solidarity Center training programs and consultations with Solidarity Center staff before negotiations began.
David Sakoh, UWUL secretary general, described the agreement as “an incredible achievement” given that it was completed during a “time of crisis,” which he said included the Ebola epidemic and falling commodities prices. ArcelorMittal last year reported a loss of nearly $8 billion due to falling steel prices and write-offs in its mining business.
The United Steelworkers (USW), Solidarity Center’s U.S. union partner in Liberia programs, thanked workers and management for their efforts to ensure through the new agreement that “the interests of workers will be represented and respected.”
The workers’ first agreement with ArcelorMittal Liberia was negotiated in 2012, making the company the second major investor in Liberia to sign a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). It came four years after a groundbreaking CBA between Firestone Natural Rubber Liberia and the Firestone Agricultural Workers.
Workers in Liberia have forged a decades-long partnership with the Solidarity Center and their counterparts in the United States, during which they received skills-development trainings to hone workers’ organizing and bargaining techniques, as well as support for their efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic, prevent child labor, improve Liberian labor law, address the growth of insecure informal economy jobs and seek gender equality within their unions.