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Flomo, et al. v. Firestone Natural Rubber Company

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Summary:

Child laborers between 5 and 18 years of age brought claims against Firestone Natural Rubber Company (“Firestone) under the ATS for violations of international law concerning the “worst forms of child labor” and other human rights abuses that occurred on Firestone’s Liberian Plantation.

Background:

Since 1926, Firestone, a large multinational corporation, has inherited generation after generation of exploited workers who can be traced back to the original people it forcibly conscripted to work on its rubber plantation in Liberia, West Africa.  For more than 80 years, Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC or predecessor Firestone companies have owned and operated the rubber plantation that supplies Firestone with raw latex it uses to make latex products, which it sells to the public.  Far from just leasing the land from the Government of Liberia, Firestone’s operation of the Plantation has been referred to as a “state within a state” in which Firestone controls the land, production, infrastructure, social services and virtually all other aspects of governance within the area, awarded to Firestone through a Concession Agreement with the Government of Liberia.

Within a generation of Harvey Firestone’s invasion of the area now comprising the plantation, Firestone had created a production system that exploited Liberians and was based on forced child labor. Firestone deliberately maintaining quotas that were so onerous that tappers and their children had no choice but to work as a family to avoid starvation. An individual tapper was given a daily quota, one or more “tasks” of trees from which he must harvest and transport raw latex to a collection tank that could be up to a mile away. Each task had about 650 trees. Dan Adomitis, President of Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC, which owns the Firestone Liberia Plantation, admitted in a 2005 CNN Inside Africa interview that “each tapper will tap about 650 trees a day where they spen[d] perhaps a couple of minutes at each tree.” 650 trees a day, at two minutes per tree equals more than 21 hours of work a day. In addition to tapping their assigned “tasks,” tappers were also responsible for applying fungicides and stimulants to the trees to increase production and protect the trees from disease.  At times, they had to do make-up or recovery tapping, which increased the size of their tasks by 50% to 100%. 

Legal Proceedings:

As a result of the exploitative conditions on the Firestone Plantation, on November 17, 2005, 23 child laborers, through the assistance of their adult legal guardians, filed a lawsuit against Firestone Natural Rubber Company, LLC. The child Plaintiffs alleged violations of international human rights norms, including forced labor and the worst forms of child labor, in violation of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).  Specifically, the children accused Firestone of knowingly and purposely maintaining a production system that relied on children as young as five to work long hours, carry heavy loads, use sharp machetes, and work in hazardous conditions that exposed them to chemicals.  More than just being complacent in the problem, Firestone encouraged the children to work and created an environment where the fathers had no choice but to work with their children to avoid losing their jobs and face imminent starvation.    

The discovery process in this case was extensive and involved the exchange of numerous documents and depositions taken both in the U.S. and in Liberia, where all the children Plaintiffs, their father-guardians who were tappers on the Plantation, and other witnesses, such as Firestone executives, supervisors, and a union leader were deposed.  The parties additionally designated experts with Dr. David Parker serving as Plaintiffs’ Public and Occupational Health Expert who visited Liberia and observed the terrain and working conditions first hand. 

At the conclusion of discovery, Firestone filed a renewed motion for summary judgment, asserting both legal and evidentiary arguments.  Although Plaintiffs responded with copious amounts of evidence demonstrating that Firestone deliberating perpetuated a system of hazardous child labor, the District Court reconsidered previous legal rulings concerning the child labor claims, held that corporations cannot be held liable under the ATS, and, consequently, granted summary judgment.  Plaintiffs appealed this decision and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ultimately affirmed the District Court’s judgment, finding that corporations may be held liable under the ATS but that Plaintiffs had not sufficiently demonstrated a crisp rule of customary international law regarding child labor. This case is currently closed.

Follow-Up:

Until very recently – five years after Firestone was sued in 2005 for human rights abuses – the conditions remained largely unchanged with each tapper responsible for unmanageable workloads.  The evidence unearthed during the case showed that many of Firestone’s supervisors had themselves worked as children on the Plantation and witnessed children working for years before and after the lawsuit was filed in 2005. Without a reduction in workload, Firestone’s own managers did not enforce the policies because, without the children, “their production was going down.”

In this case, Firestone often cited the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) as the determinate of working conditions.  Although some changes have occurred, many do not rise above a cosmetic level – and they came long after the lawsuit was filed.  Once they were empowered by the filing of this lawsuit, the adult workers engaged in a massive work stoppage, created a legitimate trade union, and ousted the previous company union that had for decades colluded with Firestone to allow children to be systematically exploited. The new union, the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (“FAWUL”) won an election in 2007, well after this lawsuit, but had to go to the Liberian Supreme Court to get Firestone to recognize it.       

The new union’s fight did not end there as it also had to force Firestone to implement the new CBA, which the Company resisted doing until 2009.  In fact, in 2009, the United Steel Workers sent Dan Adomitis, the President of Firestone Natural Rubber Company, a letter in which it called the lack of implementation of the CBA concerning a reduction of 20% in the tappers’ workloads to be a particularly “dehumanizing violation of the CBA and unacceptable.”  The failure to reduce workloads was particularly egregious, the USW noted, because of the “numerous reports in the recent years that many tappers were compelled to put their families to work, including the use of child labor, in order to meet the unrealistic daily quota.”   

Cooperating Attorneys:

  • Conrad & Scherer, LLP
  • Kimberly D. Jeselskis, Jeselskis Law Offices
  • Benjamin Schonbrun and Paul Hoffman, Schonbrun, Desimone, Seplow, Harris, Hoffman, LLP

Featured Local Partners:

Green Advocates, a non-profit organization in Liberia, West Africa, served as a local liaison in Liberia during the pendency of this case.  The organization is headed by Alfred Brownell, a Liberian attorney and environmental and human rights advocate.  Green Advocates conducts human rights and environmental education and awareness activities concerning the right to a healthy environment and equal access to the benefits of natural resources, believing that “only when people are aware of their rights are they in a position to exercise, defend, or protect these rights.”  Through the Human Rights Advocacy/Protection program, Green Advocates uses Liberian and international laws, protocols and mechanisms not only as instruments to change and re-direct Liberia’s environmental policy towards more sustainable use of the environment, but to protect and advance the rights of all Liberians to a clean, healthy, sound, safe, and sustainable environment.

Green Advocates continues to investigate human rights abuses on the Firestone Plantation and is currently working on environmental issues concerning Firestone’s pollution of the Farmington River and communities surrounding the Firestone Plantation.   

For more information about Green Advocates, visit: www.greenadvocates.org