Monday, February 21, 2011

Victory! Firestone Workers In Liberia Reduce Child Labor | News

by Tim Newman · February 17, 2011
The Firestone Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) was presented with the Iqbal Masih Award by the U.S. Department of Labor at a ceremony in Monrovia, Liberia this week. The annual award was established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the work of an individual, company, organization or national government to end the worst forms of child labor. The award is an important recognition of the efforts of this inspiring trade union that has been supported over the years by readers and activists across the country, and follows a significant victory in a campaign demanding Firestone respect workers.

The Bridgestone/Firestone Tire Company has owned a rubber plantation in Liberia since 1926. For years, child labor and other worker rights violations have been rampant on the plantation. Workers were subjected to unreasonably high production quotas in order to receive their meager wages and as a result, were forced to bring their children with them to work in order to survive. Workers on the plantation held an historic and heroic organizing campaign on the plantation to form an independent and democratically elected union on the plantation, often in spite of intimidation carried out by the company. That campaign was supported and bolstered by over 700 members, whose support directly contributed to FAWUL's success.

After historic union elections in 2007 and a long struggle to gain recognition, the workers were able to sign their first true collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in 2008 and signed their second agreement in 2010. The contracts included key improvements for workers including lower production quotas, higher salaries and greater benefits. The latest contract also includes an agreement to update a burdensome system where workers carried two buckets of raw latex weighing often a total of 150 pounds on either end of a stick on their backs for miles. readers supported Firestone workers at several points during their struggle, including the last round of contract negotiations. In fact, hundreds of readers contacted Firestone specifically calling for an end to the old system of transporting latex on the plantation. Firestone has agreed to improve this archaic system, but progress is only moving gradually.

Throughout the struggle, the Firestone workers in Liberia were supported by international human rights, labor and environmental organizations, as well as part of a global campaign to end centuries of abuse on the plantation. The International Labor Rights Forum worked with other allies to mobilize consumers and activists in the United States to support workers in Liberia -- including flooding the company with e-mails and phone calls, delivering letters to Firestone stores all across the country, issuing reports on the abuses, bringing workers to the U.S. for speaking events and more.

The award from the Department of Labor is also especially important because it highlights the critical role that unions can play in ending the most egregious labor rights abuses and improving conditions for adult workers. FAWUL's story has demonstrates that international solidarity can help to create the space for unions and grassroots organizations to organize their communities and work toward eliminating abuse.

For more background on the struggle of Firestone workers, check out this inspiring video from United Steelworkers.

Photo credit: International Labor Rights Forum (with permission)
Tim Newman is a campaigns assistant at the International Labor Rights Forum. He also works on the Stop Firestone campaign.

Victory! Firestone Workers In Liberia Reduce Child Labor | News

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