SANNIQUELLIE, Nimba – Former workers of steel giant ArcelorMittal have rejected an offer by the company to have a limited number of them return to work as contractors instead of as full employees.
The company made the offer as a way of settling the current standoff between it and the 800-strong former workers’ association. The former workers are seeking reinstatement as full employees or the full benefits due to employees who were laid off, as required by law. Some employees are seeking 38 months’ worth of benefits.
Speaking to The Bush Chicken in Sanniquellie on Tuesday, Feb. 25, the head of the group, Kingston Nyandibo (pictured in the featured photo), said ArcelorMittal made the offer in a meeting convened by the Liberian government this past weekend in Monrovia. Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, Labor Minister Moses Kollie, and Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean were present.
At the meeting, the company proposed that 21 former workers could return to the company as contractors, while the rest wait to be gradually absorbed. No definite timeframe was given for when all of them would be absorbed, and the proposal came only after government officials advised the company that it had broken Liberia’s labor laws by illegally dismissing the workers.
The alternative to the company’s proposal appears to be a drawn-out lawsuit at the Supreme Court, which could take years to be resolved, according to the government’s representatives present.
Neither Nyandibo nor his group were interested in a protracted legal batter with the company. But they were also deeply shocked that the same government representatives who recently ruled in their favor were now siding with the company. Nyandibo warned that if the company did not want violent protests, it should immediately pay them off, as was previously recommended by the Labor Ministry.
He clarified his demands, “What we want is, according to the ruling from Labor Ministry, that ArcelorMittal pays us off. That’s our position. If ArcelorMittal does not honor our demand, we will continue to dance ‘gbema’ dance [an unending back-and-forth dance famous in Liberia]; we will do anything we can, and we are willing to go to jail. We are peaceful people; we will not do things that will go against us. But Mittal will not work under good atmosphere. We do not want to behave like the South Africans, the Senegalese, the Brazilians, or even the Mexicans that they were always facing problem because of the company’s behavior.”
The group’s head cautioned the company’s management to take good faith actions to address their grievances, hinting at the possibility that some government officials may be receiving money from the company in exchange for using their influence to calm workers down.
After being assured that the case was in their favor, the government was now doing a 180-degree flip against the workers, and now calling upon them to renegotiate with the company. Nyandibo even suggested that ArcelorMittal has bribed these government officials to turn against them, although he offered no proof.
When asked what the group will do next, Nyandibo said they were now awaiting the results of intervention efforts by leaders of Nimba County Legislative Caucus, county authorities, civil society actors, and traditional council leaders, before launching their next plan of action against the company.
Senator Prince Y. Johnson of Nimba recently came out in public support of the former workers, accusing the company of gross disrespect of Liberia and Liberian laws.
Nyandibo expressed his frustration about the situation: “How will I get the ruling in my favor from your office, and then you are telling me to push the ruling aside and renegotiate? I know what ArcelorMittal is capable of doing. They have tampered with the Liberian government. They always boast of having the government in their pockets, so they have proven this to us. We have informed the county authority, civil society groups and the traditional council in Nimba to intervene. They have already started their work and we are awaiting the outcome of their intervention.”
Another former worker, Sam T. Manwon, was more caustic in his allegations against the company, branding it as a “clever group of criminals.” But he said his group was willing to risk their lives in the struggle for their benefits. According to Manwon, they no longer feared the consequences because they have been ‘dead’ since they were “illegally redundant by the company few years ago.”
Manwon promised not to relent in the fight despite intimidation and potential bribery, and wants the traditional council and others to quickly intervene before things go out of hand.
“If they think they are radical, we are more radical than them. Arcelor Mittal does not respect law and order,” he said.
If the company failed to address their demands in the soonest possible time, Manwon warned, his group was willing to go beyond merely blocking the railroad. He did not, however, specify actually what these more radical actions could be.
The former workers are adamant that their campaign is no longer to beg or appeal to ArcelorMittal. They are now demanding what they consider their just entitlements.
Manwon believes the intervention of the national government could prevent the repeat of a 2014 saga in Zolowee that left large amounts of the company’s properties destroyed when angry residents of the town stormed the company’s area over claims of being marginalized.
Featured photo by Jerry Myers