HARBEL, Margibi â€“ Firestoneâ€™s plantation was a scene of complete confusion when news broke on Wednesday, March 18 that the companyâ€™s management had reached the decision to lay off 800 of its workers.
The number constitutes about 13 percent of the entire workforce of the concession company.
Firestoneâ€™s management attributed the reason for the layoffs to continued and unsustainable losses resulting from high overhead costs associated with the companyâ€™s concession agreement with the government, low natural rubber production because of the countryâ€™s prolonged civil wars, and continued low global prices for natural rubber.
The company furthered stressed in its press release that it has been closely working with the Ministry of Labor and the Agriculture Agro-Processing and the Industrial Workers Union of Liberia to ensure that the process was done according to Liberiaâ€™s labor laws, company policies, and the company collective bargaining agreement with the union.
An alarming part of the companyâ€™s press release was the acknowledgment that even the massive layoff would not be enough to make Firestone profitable. The company noted that it would continue to evaluate all aspects of its business to ensure long-term competitiveness and determine the best allocation of resources.
In response to the announcement, the secretary general of the union,
Edwin B. Cisco told The Bush Chicken that Firestoneâ€™s management had communicated its intent to lay off 13 percent of the workforce since the end of last year.
â€œFrom the day we received the communication from the management of Firestone of the companyâ€™s decision to terminate the contracts of about 800 workers, we communicated immediately to the government of Liberia through the Ministry of Labor to intervene. As we speak, we did not conclusively resolve this issue until the management came out with this,â€ Cisco added.
â€œWe are even on record for appealing to authorities at the Ministry of Labor, requesting them to seek the intervention of the president of Liberia in this matter.â€
Cisco said the union is not fully aware of the details of the financial losses the company is undergoing, as stated in the press release. However, he said the unionâ€™s major concern is to ensure job security for workers. He said he would work with all actors to ensure that the issue is resolved amicably and in the interest of the workers.
â€œWe are not prepared at this time to watch our members go out of jobs in such form and manner,â€ he stressed.
Margibiâ€™s second and third districts representatives, Ivar Kokulo Jones, and Ellen A. Attoh Wreh, respectively, told The Bush Chicken they just could not embrace such news amid the troubling economic crisis in the country.
In a phone conversation, Rep. Jones said because of the alarming developments, he would ask his fellow colleagues at the Capitol Building to invite the labor minister to give details of the companyâ€™s pronounced layoff of workers.
Rep. Attoh Wreh, also noted that she found the news disturbing.
â€œI encourage all workers of Firestone Liberia to exercise calm and patience and look forward to my office, as I work in collaboration with the Margibiâ€™s legislative caucus and the government of Liberia to ascertain the facts and way forward in this crucial moment,â€ she added.
Attoh Wreh said she is confident that despite the decision by Firestone, there will be measurable steps to ensure that her people are given their just labor benefits.
For his part, Rodennick Gbongolee, a workplace representative of the Estates Services Department at the Firestone factory, described the news as a surprise.
Gbongolee blamed the leadership of the parent union for failing to inform workers representatives from various departments on the plantations of the decision, given that union leaders knew in advance.
â€œYou know what it means? It has a wider effect on the citizens of this country. I can freely say that. It is not just about 800 employees but thousands of others who are dependent on them,â€ he added.
The companyâ€™s announcement also shook the hundreds of students who attend its schools.
Two students of the Harbel Junior High School, who preferred to remain anonymous, said they were worried about the companyâ€™s planned exercise because it might jeopardize their access to quality education.
Dressed in their yellow and green uniform, one of the students said he prays his dad is not affected by the layoff.
â€œRight now, my parents donâ€™t have money to send us to private school. The Firestone school is free to us. When we are sick, we go to hospital free of charge,â€ he added.
The other student added: â€œMy father has worked for over 15 years with the company and we do not have our own house. His pay is small and he cannot afford to build a house. He has told us on many days that the only thing he can give is education. If the company puts him down, we will suffer.â€
This is not the first time the company is laying off workers due to low production and a drop in the price of rubber on the world market.
In August of 2016, the company reduced its workforce by 500 workers â€“ about 7 percent of its workforce at the time.
In 2015, a modest 25 employees were laid off by the company. In September of 2018, the company shut down its rubberwood factory, laying off about 76 workers. Then, the company attributed the closure of the factory to decreased purchase of its rubberwood products.
Feature photo courtesy ofÂ Solidarity Center/ Bill E. Diggs