Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Workers at the world’s largest rubber plantation, in Liberia, brought a federal lawsuit against their employer, Bridgestone Firestone, in a U.S. court. Organized by the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of some six thousand people who lived and worked on the plantation, the suit alleged a litany of abuses including low wages and poor working conditions, forced labor, and the use of children as workers.

Summary of Event

Bridgestone Firestone, the largest tire manufacturer in the world, is an American-Japanese conglomerate with head offices in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to its tire manufacturing concerns, the company produces a host of latex products for use in industry and construction. The company was founded in Akron, Ohio, as the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1900. In 1988, Firestone was bought by the Japanese tire manufacturer Bridgestone, and the company was named Bridgestone Firestone (BF) in 1990 after the two entities merged. [kw]Bridgestone Firestone Over Slave Labor, Liberian Workers Sue (Nov. 17, 2005) [kw]Slave Labor, Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone Over (Nov. 17, 2005) John Roe I et al. v. Bridgestone (2005) Firestone;and Liberia[Liberia] Liberia Slavery;in Liberia[Liberia] Bridgestone Firestone Rubber;in Liberia[Liberia] Collingsworth, Terry Adomitis, Daniel J. Hamilton, David F. International Labor Rights Fund John Roe I et al. v. Bridgestone (2005) Firestone;and Liberia[Liberia] Liberia Slavery;in Liberia[Liberia] Bridgestone Firestone Rubber;in Liberia[Liberia] Collingsworth, Terry Adomitis, Daniel J. Hamilton, David F. International Labor Rights Fund [g]Africa;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [g]Liberia;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [g]United States;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Law and the courts;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Colonialism and imperialism;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Human rights;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Environmental issues;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Business;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Labor;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over Slave Labor[03540] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 17, 2005: Liberian Workers Sue Bridgestone Firestone over SlaveLabor[03540]

Workers in Liberia carry buckets of newly tapped rubber over long distances at Firestone’s vast estate in 1978.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British government held a global monopoly on rubber. In an effort to supply the growing domestic automobile market with cheaper rubber, Firestone, with the encouragement and full support of the U.S. government, explored opportunities to break Great Britain’s hold on Africa. In 1926, Firestone invested in the West African nation of Liberia. It embarked on a ninety-nine-year lease with the Liberian government for a natural rubber plantation and founded the city of Harbel in Margibi County, near Monrovia. By the early twenty-first century, BF was Liberia’s largest employer and held a concession on more than 1 million acres of land throughout the country. The plantation in Harbel alone measured more than 240 square miles and officially employed six thousand people.

The character of natural latex harvesting is highly labor-intensive, requiring the hand tapping of rubber trees with relatively simple tools and the collection of raw latex in portable buckets. Coupled with an impoverished local population and BF’s high demand for the natural latex, perhaps it is not surprising that serious charges of abusive labor practices surfaced again in 2005. Each worker, referred to as a “tapper,” had to meet a daily quota of 450 pounds of latex.

Acting on information provided by Liberian environmental law activists, Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer and executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF; now the International Labor Rights Forum), traveled to Liberia in early October, 2005. The ILRF is a United States-based advocacy organization that focuses on working conditions and workers’ rights worldwide, particularly in the developing and least developed world. Collingsworth visited the BF plantation and interviewed more than one hundred laborers about not only working conditions but also housing, sanitation, utilities, and environmental practices. Upon his return to the ILRF’s offices in Washington, D.C., Collingsworth filed an Alien Tort Statute (1789) class-action lawsuit against BF on behalf of twelve adult and twenty-three child plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on November 17. The Alien Tort Statute allows non-U.S. citizens to file suit in U.S. courts for international law violations, including slavery and forced labor, that are unrecognized as law violations in the country of the plaintiff or plaintiffs.

The twelve-count claim in John Roe I et al. v. Bridgestone alleged that plantation conditions constituted forced labor because tappers labor up to fourteen hours per day and must enlist others (often children as young as six years old) as unpaid help, swelling the workforce to an estimated sixteen thousand people. For their work, the tappers earned the equivalent of $3.19 per day, before deductions. These wages were docked 50 percent if tappers failed to meet their quotas. In addition, because many of the tappers lived on the plantation, they relied upon BF for housing, food, access to water and electricity, education, and health care. If provided at all, these necessities were well below standard. In short, the lawsuit alleged that BF was engaged in modern-day slavery, forcing the Liberians to work in deplorable conditions by the coercion of poverty.

The suit against BF was filed in the United States, not Liberia, for several reasons. Principally, Collingsworth was able to bring suit in the United States not only because of the Alien Tort Statute but also because of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003, which, in part, created a civil right of action for human trafficking victims in U.S. courts, irrespective of geographic location of the offense or the nationality of victims or perpetrators. Furthermore, by filing in the United States, Collingsworth hoped to protect the plaintiffs (identified only as John, James, and Jane Roe) and the other plantation workers from retribution and a corrupt legal system in Liberia.

Predictably, BF responded immediately and aggressively to the allegations, employing its substantial legal and public relations resources. In addition to standardized sound bites from a host of BF media liaisons, Firestone Natural Rubber Company president Daniel J. Adomitis was frequently cited in the media not only disputing the veracity of the charges and expostulating on the company’s corporate benefice but also alleging that the ILRF was more interested in generating media attention than in serving the interests of Liberian rubber workers.

On the legal front, BF’s team of attorneys simultaneously filed motions to transfer the venue from California to the Southern District of Indiana and to dismiss the case. The court granted the motion to transfer venue based on the case’s lack of connection to California and the fact that the company’s headquarters are located within the jurisdiction of the Southern District of Indiana. However, the court did not address BF’s motion to dismiss.

The case was heard by Judge David F. Hamilton. Again, BF filed a motion to dismiss, for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court denied the motion. On June 26, 2007, the court decided the matter, largely in favor of BF, and dismissed eleven of the twelve counts. In his ruling, Judge Hamilton deemed that the adult workers’ principal claim of forced labor in violation of international law was undermined by their allegations that they are afraid of losing the same jobs they claim they are being forced to perform. Furthermore, his decision specified that forced labor cannot be equated only with low wages and difficult working conditions. In short, it was the opinion of the court that the adults’ working conditions on the plantation, while harsh, did not violate the specific, universal, and obligatory norms of forced labor under international law.

In a victory for the ILRF and its plaintiffs, however, the count pertaining to the child workers survived the legal challenge. Hamilton determined that BF actively encouraged parents to require children to work full-time at dangerous jobs on the plantation. The case continued as one of forced child labor.

Impact

The allegations that prompted the lawsuit had an immediate impact. Though the treatment of workers on Liberian rubber plantations has been suspect from the early 1930’s, when it was first investigated by the League of Nations League of Nations, the dire conditions have remained largely unknown in North America to all but a small cohort of labor and human rights attorneys, environmentalists, and developing-world solidarity activists.

The ILRF’s case has garnered the renewed attention of the United Nations;and Liberia[Liberia] United Nations and alerted people in the developed world to the human and social costs of postcolonialism and to cases of corruption and abuse by multinational corporations. More directly, the scrutiny of BF has driven the company to address a host of labor and related issues in Liberia, including better enforcement of the company’s own labor regulations, improved basic services on the plantation, and a greater investment in the commitment to provide education and training for the populace. On August 6, 2008, BF signed an agreement with the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia to provide incremental wage increases and other benefits. The agreement marked the first such accord between the company and its plantation workers in Liberia. John Roe I et al. v. Bridgestone (2005) Firestone;and Liberia[Liberia] Liberia Slavery;in Liberia[Liberia] Bridgestone Firestone Rubber;in Liberia[Liberia] Collingsworth, Terry Adomitis, Daniel J. Hamilton, David F. International Labor Rights Fund

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hecht, Susanna B., and Alexander Cockburn. The Fate of the Forest Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon. London: Verso, 1989. Employing an environmental humanism paradigm, the authors address the problems of natural-resource harvesting. Though the focus is on South America, the book does draw upon examples from elsewhere in the developing world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mullins, Christopher W., and Dawn L. Rothe. Power, Bedlam, and Bloodshed: State Crime in Post-colonial Africa. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. An overview of violations of international criminal law in postcolonial African states. Focuses on how crimes arise from a postcolonial environment and the potential remedies offered by international social control.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Mission in Liberia. Human Rights in Liberia’s Rubber Plantations: Tapping into the Future. Monrovia, Liberia: United Nations, 2006. The final report of a study conducted by the U.N. human rights and protection section that highlights poverty and human-rights violations in Liberia’s agricultural sector.

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