DECEMBER 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 12
Auto Industry Woes Cut Deep for Firestone's Workers
by Jonathan Friedland
MONROVIA, LIBERIA-The layoffs and retrenchment that have become endemic to the U.S. auto industry have acutely affected the West African state of Liberia. Here, local employees of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company have had to suffer many of the same indignities as their American counterparts as the world's third largest tire maker reorganizes its worldwide operations.
Over the past three years, the Akron, Ohio-based company has closed a number of its tire manufacturing plants in the U.S. and sold off shares of its rubber plantations in Ghana and Liberia. In Liberia, where Firestone has operated plantations since 1926 and still produces 40 million pounds of rubber a year, the company has been able to trim costs by closing one of its two plantations, cutting back on social services to employees, and avoiding taxes levied by the perenially broke Liberian government.
For company stockholders, the cutbacks have succeeded. Chairman John Nevin boasted in May that, in the second quarter of 1983, the firm's profits doubled to $26 million from $13 million during that period last year-quite a comeback from 1979, when the company lost millions of dollars. But the social and economic costs of Firestone's actions have been high for the company's Liberian employees.
Employment in its rubber plantations here has been reduced to 10,000 from 12,000 two years ago. In addition to the lay-offs, unemployed workers are denied access to Firestone's health care facilities, schools, and social centers-the only such facilities nearby. Laid-off workers also lose company subsidies on rice and palm oil, and under company policy, cannot be rehired at another plantation.
Mostly illiterate and paid two dollars a day, the workers have had little luck in organizing to present their grievances. "The revolution was supposed to be trying to open peoples' eyes about job security and stuff," said one Liberian worker at the company's 220 square mile Harbel plantation, referring to the military coup on April 12, 1980 that overthrew the regime of William Tolbert. "But we don't have no leverage against the company. We got to take what we can get."
And the "revolutionary" government of Liberia also takes what it can get. The Peoples Redemption Council (PRC) government led by Major General Samuel Kenyon Doe isn't willing to ruffle Firestone's feathers and has clamped down on union activity that is not officially sanctioned. Despite initial antagonism towards Firestone after the coup, the PRC government has become more accomodating. The tire maker pays no export tax or import duties to the Liberian government.
"We have a love-hate relationship with the Liberian government," said John Musch, Executive Vice President of Firestone's World Tire Group, in a recent interview. "But overall, it's an amicable, understanding relationship. The government of Liberia is flat out broke but we pointed out, hey, we're losing millions of dollars every year and when you consider that Firestone has pumped millions into Liberia. . . We are both dancing with a bear. "
But if anyone is living precariously, it is the Liberian worker. In an effort to "reduce overhead" the company turned its Cavalla Plantation in Maryland County over to the government, cut 10% of the workforce at the Harbel plantation and terminated the practice of providing new housing to workers in areas where new rubber trees are being planted.
The situation is particularly bad in Maryland County where the Cavalla Plantation has come to a standstill because the government has neither the money nor the manpower to keep the plantation viable. Ex-employees of Cavalla are reduced to tapping old trees, many of which yield little rubber, and selling the rubber to a Firestone agent for -$.09 per dry rubber content (DRC) pound. The market price for a DRC pound is currently about $.40 but contract workers are obliged to accept Firestone's price because the company is the exclusive agent for rubber in Maryland County.
"On a good day with these trees, I may get 20 pounds DRC," said one old man in Sedeke, a village surrounded by tall rows of rubber trees in the midst of what once was the Cavalla plantation. "But when the company left, they took away our subsidies for rice and closed the schools and the hospital. I can't feed my family anymore and the kids aren't getting educated. People don't know agriculture here. All they know is tapping. The young be leaving for Monrovia leaving a village of the old. Sedeke's a dead place man, a dead place."
But Harbel is a different story. The world's largest rubber plantation still churns out thousands of pounds of processed rubber a year for the radials used on thousands of American cars. The Americans still keep their country club at Harbel and most of the 10,000 odd workers still live in company housing. The main difference between life at Harbel in 1979 and 1983 has come from the fear of being laid-off. Many of the trees at Harbel have become unproductive and new areas have been planted in areas far from the company town. Firestone is recruiting workers from distant villages to work the new areas and firing some workers employed at the old areas.
"Man, Harbel going down and we ain't left with shit," said a company clerk who has a high school education, has worked for Firestone for 15 years, and makes $2.07'a day. "Firestone is acting on two kinds of policy. Akron policy and Liberian policy. The market goes bad and the people get restless. The American man turns around and runs."
"One-fifth the population of this country works for Firestone" he added bitterly, "and they say `we're here to stay' but the way they been cutting on people, you'd never figure that they were trying to keep up good relations with their workers. This retrenchment policy is hurting a lot of folks."
But a Firestone official in Monrovia dismissed the Liberian criticisms. "Look," he said, "we are doing our best. This country damn near refuses to help itself."
Jonathan Friedland is the Washington financial correspondent for Inter-press Service, Rome.