EXCLUSIVE: Revealed, how American tyre giant Firestone forces families of dead Ebola victims to leave their homes on Liberian plantation

Gethin Chamberlain, in Monrovia, for MailOnline, 21 November 2014

Tyre giant Firestone has ordered the children of workers who died from Ebola to leave their homes on its plantation in Liberia.

The company – part of the Bridgestone group which last week announced sales for the first nine months of the year totalling £14.5 billion – has told the families they cannot stay on in worker housing and will not get pensions.

At least 57 people have died on Firestone’s giant plantation near the national capital Monrovia since the start of the outbreak in March.

The dead include nine workers, plus family members and people living around the edges of the site who sought treatment at the company’s medical facility.

Family of workers who died are entitled to a one-off payment of $1,900 [£1,200] and a bag of rice.

Their union complains that Liberia’s labour laws are weighted in favour of the company and there is no provision for a pension to support their families.

‘They don’t give a damn about anyone. It is the oldest problem,’ said Austin S. Natee, president of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia.

‘There is no law in the book to hold the investors [to account]. The government doesn’t have any laws to protect us.

‘Here if you die in an accident your family receive the death benefits and then they are off the plantation.’

Managing director Edmundo Garcia, speaking to MailOnline at the plantation, confirmed families of dead workers had been asked to leave.

‘The family gets death benefits but unfortunately they have to move out,’ he said.

Among those who have died are Natee’s own brother, Carter. He left a wife and four children, who say they have been told they must now leave behind their friends and the only life they have ever known to start afresh off the plantation.

The family are waiting for the payment of their death benefits before leaving the plantation. Natee said he would try to look after them, but they would not receive a pension.

‘The point is that in the UK the law, your labour law, is to defend and protect your citizens,’ he said.

‘But our labour law in Liberia protects the rights of investors and the workers’ rights are limited.

‘If the labour laws were in place there would be a responsibility for the company to take care of the family.’

The Gobarshea’s family live in Area 37, reached down a long dirt road between the rubber trees.

They have a small concrete house with two bedrooms off a living room in a row of three others. There is a communal toilet block a short walk away and cooking facilities are also shared.

14-year-old Arvin says: ‘We have been told that after we get our father’s death benefits we are going to have to leave the plantation.

‘I don’t feel good about it. My father died and I will be thinking about him and my friends who I will leave behind.’

Abenego said he had hoped to stay on the plantation and to get a job as a journalist. His twin brother said he had hoped to become a teacher on the plantation.

‘I want to tell the company to allow us to stay here and do our jobs,’ said Abenego.

He said they had so far received $300 and a bag of rice, and this was what they were using to live on.

Under the union agreement the family of workers who die receive $1,600 in death benefits –

equivalent to about 18 months wages – plus another $300 as an allowance for transporting the body. They also receive a bag of rice.

The union president said that was the limit of the company’s responsibility. ‘Once death benefit is paid they have to move,’ he said. ‘Some have gone already.’

Natee described pay levels as ‘just so pathetic’. He said rubber workers were skilled workers who should be on salaries of $500 a month.

Instead, he said, they were paid just $132 a month. ‘That is far below the cost of living,’ he said.

He said workers often needed help to complete their duties. Some took their wives along with them while others had to pay an assistance from their own pocket.

The plantation boasts a golf course and club house where meals start at $8 – far beyond the pocket of workers. But Natee said it was not there for their benefit.

‘It is for the expatriates. We are not allowed to play there. Of course not,’ he said.

He said there had been about 26 expatriates at the plantation before the Ebola outbreak but some had gone home and only nine were left.

The plantation covers 185 square miles and contains an estimated eight million trees. After it is processed, block rubber and liquid latex are sent to the US for use in the manufacture of tyres and other products.

It operates seven days a week; production staff work a six-day week and office staff five days.

The basic wage is $5.08 a day, but the company says that workers can earn more in additional payments for performing particular tasks. It says it also provides free housing, education and health care and subsidised rice.

In April Liberia’s House of Representatives agreed a Decent Work Bill setting the minimum wage for skilled workers at $6 a day, with a lower rate of $4 for unskilled and domestic workers. The decision was endorsed by the Senate in September.

In 2006 a UN report on human rights on Liberia’s rubber plantations criticised Firestone for the state of worker housing, which it noted had not been renovated since the houses were built more than seventy years earlier.

The company has also faced accusations of failing to tackle child labour, including in the UN report, which noted that it did not effectively monitor its own policy, which bars the employment of anyone under the age of 18.

However, in 2011, a US court finally threw out a case brought by a group of 23 Liberian children aged from six to 16, who claimed that they worked on the plantation as tappers, extracting latex from the trees. Lawyers for the children argued that they helped their parents with the work but the court ruled that the company was not responsible for any work done by the children.

In a written ruling, Judge Richard Posner, wrote that: ‘Conceivably, because the fathers of the children on the plantation are well paid by Liberian standards, even the children who help their fathers with the work are, on balance, better off than the average Liberian child, and would be worse off if their fathers, unable to fill their daily quotas, lost their jobs or had to pay adult helpers.’

Firestone Natural Rubber Company is part of the giant Bridgestone corporation, which produces tyres under the Firestone and Bridgestone brands for the international market, including the UK, US and continental Europe. It is one of the world’s top three tyre companies.

Firestone Natural Rubber Company President and managing director Edmundo Garcia, speaking to MailOnline at the plantation, confirmed families of dead workers had been asked to leave.

‘The family gets death benefits but unfortunately they have to move out,’ he said. He said he did not know how many families had been asked to leave the plantation.

‘We don’t have that many employees who died. I don’t know offhand,’ he said.

He said the company provided death benefits in accordance with its union agreement.

The company has been praised by the US Centre for Disease Control for the way in which it brought the outbreak on the plantation under control after deaths peaked in September.

Garcia, who lives in Nashville when he is not in Liberia, said the first case was identified on Sunday March 30.

At the time the only known Ebola cases were in the north, in Lofa county.

‘We were really surprised to have got it here,’ he said.

‘We were informed by the Ministry of Health. It was almost midnight when I got the call. I was told that we had a positive patient who had fled the clinic in Lofa.’

The infected woman was the wife of a Firestone employee who had travelled from the north of the country.

Garcia said that there was never any point at which the company considered stopping production or sealing off the plantation.

‘Why didn’t we lock it down? It is very porous. There are no fences. People can cross through any part [of the plantation]. There are a lot of footpaths and there are many roads going through the property.

‘Locking our place down was just not possible. Our borders run for 90 miles. You can’t secure a place just with fencing. People will still go through.’

Asked whether the company could have afforded to have shut down production to try to contain the outbreak at its height, Garcia said that had not been considered.

‘We are not very wealthy. It is a very challenging business and Ebola has made our operations more difficult,’ he said.

‘A lot of other companies left but we couldn’t leave them [the employees].

‘There are thousands of people who rely on us. The best was to control Ebola was to do what we did.’

What the company decided to do instead, after the first case, was to set up its own treatment centre and to do whatever it could to inform those living on the plantation about the dangers and how they could be avoided..

‘On the Monday morning we called a meeting to found out what we could do and we found that we had to deal with the situation ourselves. There were no Ebola treatment centres around Monrovia. We had to quickly learn about Ebola. None of us knew what it was.

‘We made plans to isolate the patients and to quarantine the family.’

Preventing the spread of the disease was vital, he said. The company set up an Ebola War Room in its offices on the plantation, where it mapped the outbreak and planned its response.

‘Our top priority was our people,’ he said.

Garcia said that the company employed about 8,500 people on the plantation, but when their families were counted too there were about 80,000 people living there.

‘We certainly couldn’t allow that case to spread.’

The efforts of the company’s medical team helped to prevent other members of the family becoming infected, he said.

‘Our medical director called the husband and gave him instructions on what to do. He told him to wear gloves and keep the children away from from his wife and told him to sterilise anything she touched.’

For the next four months, the plantation remained free of any further Ebola cases. But in July, as the number of cases began to rise across the country, and particularly in the nearby capital Monrovia, the situation deteriorated.

‘Before long we were surrounded by Ebola hotspots,’ said Garcia.

‘It started entering our plantation from multiple directions and we had to rapidly scale up our response.’

He said they had anticipated further cases – ‘it was just a matter of time’ – and had used the intervening period to establish their own Ebola Treatment Unit on the plantation. The company used its own radio station to broadcast messages to workers to make them aware of the danger of Ebola and how to prevent the spread of the disease.

When the government closed the country’s schools to contain the spread, the company redeployed the teachers from its own schools to educate the communities scattered around the plantation.

Keeping track of infected people posed a particular challenge on the plantation – as it has elsewhere in the country, where many people who have been in contact with an Ebola patient continue to mingle freely with others – but Garcia said that the company was able to persuade its workers and families to keep the company informed of new cases.

‘In the beginning people ran away but we were able to do it with the help of the community.’ Three school buildings were converted to quarantine centres for people who had been in contact with Ebola patients.

Despite these efforts, the cases rose through to a peak in September which matched the peak across the country.

To date the company has recorded 57 deaths on the plantation, while just 22 people survived. It has set up a reintegration programme to help those survivors return to their communities and to tackle the problem of stigma: many people in Liberia remain scared of coming into contact with people who have recovered from Ebola, although the evidence suggests that they have some immunity to the disease and are no longer contagious.

Some of the victims had come into the plantation from outside; others were workers or members of their families. Garcia said the figures included nine workers, but he did not have figures for family members.

‘It was really horrible,’ he said.

To help those affected, the company provided books and toys for children and cellphone cards so that families could talk to relatives who had been quarantined or were in the ETU, said Garcia. It also provided counselling and prayer services.

Apart from the 79 cases, the company has also identified more than 1,000 people who were in contact with Ebola cases.

To try to prevent more cases entering the plantation from outside, Garcia said Firestone had also worked with the government’s district health teams to improve their response.

‘We have a sense of urgency. I always tell people that Ebola doesn’t wait,’ he said.

‘We did a lot of things here overnight and we are fortunate to have a great team here.’

Even so, it took some time to stem the tide of new cases. The biggest surge came between 1 August and 6 September. Since then, just 13 more cases have been recorded.

‘Our biggest concern is that because we have got it under control that people will start relaxing, so our new theme is that it is not over.’

Garcia said that the company had also made a corporate donation of $1 million to fighting Ebola, split 50/50 between Unicef and the evangelical Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse.

It has also supplied 100 truckloads of wood to the crematorium burning the bodies of victims.

‘We implore others to step up in taking on this fight against Ebola,’ he said.

‘We are all in this together. We have to do whatever we can in our own ways.’

Survivors receive new mattresses, bedding, cooking oil, rice and $85 in cash to help them get back on their feet, because most of their possessions have been destroyed to prevent the spread of the disease.

‘It is just a little something to help them start up,’ he said.

Before Liberia’s civil war, the plantation was producing about 50,000 tons of rubber a year, but Garcia said it was now operating at barely 30 per cent of that capacity.

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