HARBEL, Liberia — The end came with a letter, but Moses Tokpah couldn’t read it. Twenty-two years of fumes at the rubber factory had damaged his vision, he said, so a friend delivered the news: Firestone was laying him off.
“Due to the redundancy of your position,” the text said.
Tokpah, 53, felt dizzy that July morning. When the international tire powerhouse — Liberia’s largest private employer — announced plans last spring to slash its workforce, he prayed to survive the cuts. No one he knew could find work anymore.
“I just lost everything,” he said, tears welling.
As the price of rubber slips on the global market, Firestone — a company founded in Ohio with nine decades in this West African country — is shedding large swaths of its staff to cope with what it calls “continued and unsustainable losses.”
The drawdown threatens to rip a seismic hole in Liberia’s floundering economy, analysts say, opening the latest chapter in the country’s long and complicated history with American-rooted power brokers.
“Firestone is the anchor,” said Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister. “Like the auto industry was for Detroit — except for an entire country.”
Firestone’s farm sprawls across 119,000 acres and is billed as the largest contiguous rubber plantation on Earth. Milky white latex from rows of Hevea brasiliensis trees drips into red buckets. Tens of thousands of people live on and around these grounds, including about 5,400 workers, down from approximately 8,500 five years ago.
The company has given 568 employees the pink slip since March, with hundreds more dismissals expected as it reduces staff. Firestone’s parent company blames a “severe business climate” in which the value of rubber — used to make tires, hoses, roofing, gloves and condoms — has plummeted 80 percent since its 2011 peak.
In a statement, Firestone said it aims “to restore profitability and help ensure long-term competitiveness as quickly as possible.”
Employees say they’re working longer hours without overtime pay, and the union accuses Firestone of looking for reasons to fire veteran staffers on top of the scheduled dismissals.
In some cases, security guards have evicted families from company housing and moved their belongings into the street, workers and their neighbors told The Washington Post. Several are now homeless. Firestone Liberia General Manager Don Darden confirmed the evictions in an interview and said employees who lose their jobs have 14 days to vacate company housing.
The tensions between Firestone and its Liberian employees have raised questions abroad: What do global titans owe their most vulnerable workers?
A worker is seen slicing latex out of a tree on Nov. 5, 2019, at the Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia. (Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post)
Companies are required to follow local labor laws, but enforcement can be spotty, and standards vary widely. More than half of the Liberia staffers are working longer than eight hours per day, the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia estimates. They make an average of $5.72 per day — or 72 cents an hour.
“Because of their financial might, Firestone feels it can twist justice around,” said Rodennick Bongorlee, FAWUL’s spokesman, “and we have nowhere to go.”
Firestone, which is owned by Japan’s Bridgestone Corp. with U.S. operations managed in Nashville, denies any wrongdoing, saying the company is adhering to Liberian labor law and pays overtime when it’s warranted.
“We do our best to avoid the necessity of overtime hours,” Firestone said in a statement. “However, if overtime hours should be required, employees are duly compensated.”
As stress mounts, a group of economists and civic leaders in the capital, Monrovia, is urging lawmakers to ditch Liberia’s reliance on outsiders. Catering to the United States and Europe is a failing model, they argued in a November report.
“The living conditions of Liberians become bad and worse,” they wrote.
Liberian President George Weah is monitoring the Firestone situation, press secretary Isaac Solo Kelgbeh said, while the country is focused on attracting new business from the United States, Europe, China and Russia — anyone who can bring sorely needed jobs.
“If you are drowning in the water,” Kelgbeh said, “you don’t mind how you’re rescued.”
Strained relationships with foreign powers are baked into Liberia’s history.
It all started after the American Colonization Society, a white philanthropic group seeking to empty the United States of black people while spreading Christian influence abroad, sent a small group of freed slaves to the West African coast in 1820.
They arrived with little support — many died of malaria within months — but eventually thousands settled here and broke away from the organization, establishing the Republic of Liberia.
About a century later, Liberia hailed Firestone as a financial boon after technological advances overseas had smashed the fledgling state’s mercantile business and predatory European loans kept it in debt.
American industrialist Harvey S. Firestone Sr. sought cheap land to expand his empire in 1926, and the cash-strapped government agreed to lease him up to a million acres at 6 cents apiece for 99 years.
Up sprouted Harbel, the company town named after the founder and his wife, Idabelle. Green colored everything — rolling fields, dense bush, American dollars flowing in and out. Saplings became fairy-tale forests. Controversy followed.
The company stirred outrage after workers accused it of supplying convicted war criminal Charles Taylor’s rebel army with cash, food and cars in exchange for protection in the 1990s — even after the rebel leader’s men killed some of its workers, a 2014 ProPublica investigation revealed.
The company said in a statement that Taylor’s men used Firestone resources under the “obvious threat of violence to anyone who considered stopping them,” adding that Firestone did not have an “amenable or collaborative relationship with Taylor or his forces.”
Liberia is still healing from the conflict, which surged on and off from 1989 to 2003, wiping out approximately 10 percent of the population. The economy crumpled. Jobs vanished.
Even people with steady work have trouble feeding their families as the cost of milk, rice and eggs climbs. Some tend to vegetable gardens on the Firestone farm. Others try to grow rice where they can.
One quest for food triggered a devastating series of events this past summer for two dozen workers and their families.
The company fired the tappers — workers who coax latex from rubber trees — in June after a blaze they set to clear marshland for farming burned 332 plants.
Workers had asked to grow rice in that area, and the company rejected the request because of “high winds, dryness and close proximity to the trees,” said Darden, the general manager. “They decided on their own to go ahead and do it, and as a result, several hundred trees were damaged.”
The workers remember the incident differently, several told The Post. They said a manager had granted permission.
The union accused Firestone of looking for excuses to remove workers without having to pay severance and took the case to a local court, where a judge ordered Firestone to halt the evictions.
Firestone fought back, and the injunction dissolved, according to court documents obtained by The Post. The company was granted a “legal eviction,” Darden said.
Kumbah Flomo, a mother of five, got the bad news on Oct. 31. She said she opened her door to security guards, who tossed her belongings into the street and locked the doors.
“They started taking everything I owned outside,” said Flomo, who lived in a Firestone work camp. “I was crying and crying.”
Labor Minister Moses Kollie stood by the company.
“If you’re not employed at the company, you’re not qualified to be in company housing,” he told The Post.
The work camp residents said it was unfair to lose their homes because of an accident.
“We didn’t make enough money to feed our kids,” Flomo said, standing next to a pile of her furniture. “We don’t have enough money to move.”
Now the children are out of school. Their wooden bed sits on the muddy sidewalk. They sleep under a tarp on their old concrete porch.
Firestone has faced accusations of workplace issues in the past.
Allegations of the use of child labor on Firestone grounds and of inhumane living conditions prompted employees to strike in 2007. The company denied all wrongdoing but made workplace changes, building better housing, medical centers and schools.
Now the concern in town is: What happens if the company shutters the plantation entirely?
“From the look of things, Firestone is pulling away,” said Elijah Dickson, a 51-year-old manager who oversees grass cutters.
Dickson, who earns $6.45 per day, said workers are picking up the slack after the layoffs, logging 10- to 11-hour shifts in the hot fields.
“There’s more work, but no one speaks up,” he said. “Everyone’s afraid of losing their jobs.”
Severance pay hasn’t eased the path forward for some workers caught in the layoffs.
Tokpah, who lost his job at the rubber factory on July 15, said Firestone sent him a month of wages for each of his 22 years of service, which worked out to about $3,000.
The money sounded like a lot, but Tokpah had relied on company housing for shelter, company schools for his teenage daughters and company doctors for his failing health.
“I paid the doctor, I paid for school fees and I put in these floors,” he said, sitting on a mattress on the ground.
His eyesight was cloudy. His back hurt. Four months later, his wallet was empty.