Firestone Responds

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November 18, 2014
by
Sarah Childress Senior Editor & Director of Local Projects, FRONTLINE

Firestone responded in writing to 10 questions from ProPublica and FRONTLINE. Those responses, excerpted or condensed for clarity, follow.

On the decision to do business with Charles Taylor:

The Firestone concession is located in the portion of Liberia that was controlled entirely by the Charles Taylor government until 1993, and then parts of it thereafter. At a certain point the company and management of that time were forced to accept the reality of Liberia’s circumstances and environment. The company had to acknowledge the Taylor government or abandon the concession — and all Liberians who depended on it —without any guarantee that the company and its management could return. Records indicate the team chose to stay and see if working with the Taylor government was possible.

As a business operating in country, the company’s role was to produce rubber and care for its employees. Government leaders were then and are typically still charged with determining the future of a country like Liberia. There was a process in place, and the negotiators considered the NPFL to be a part of it. The documents illustrate that it was the hope of the management team that a solution would emerge while the company could continue to operate the business and support the people in Liberia who depended on Firestone Liberia for their livelihood.

Firestone followed the lead of the U.S. government, other nations, former President Jimmy Carter, international organizations and others who understood that with the exception of the capital city, Charles Taylor controlled all of Liberia. All dealt with Taylor in efforts to bring peace to Liberia and get the country moving forward again.

Firestone’s management made the difficult decision to preserve its operation.  Because the company did not abandon the operation, employees had work, and management was able to eventually return and rebuild. The Firestone operation was then and is still critically important to the economy of Liberia and to the lives of the tens of thousands who depend on it for wages, healthcare, housing and education.

On the decision to sign a formal memorandum of understanding:

Once Firestone decided to try and maintain the operation in Liberia, it became necessary to establish the terms under which the company would remain. The facility was in NPFL-controlled territory, and the NPFL was acting as a government in every way possible. The NPFL wanted Firestone to continue operating, but otherwise held a very strong negotiating position, and as a private company operating in a foreign country Firestone’s management negotiated the best terms they could under the circumstances. At the time of the MOU, there was no well-established record of Taylor’s human right violations, details of which only objectively emerged in the years to come.

Reaction to Taylor’s claim that Firestone – its money, food, fuel, supplies and shelter – had been the “lifeblood” of his territory in the early years of Liberia’s civil war:

Taylor’s armed forces occupied Firestone’s facilities against the wishes of the company and its employees, and they generally took whatever they needed, including trucks, food, medical supplies, fuel and equipment. They occupied facilities and lodging areas, and Firestone was powerless to prevent it.

On some occasions, Firestone provided equal amounts of emergency relief rice to the Taylor government and the provisional government based in Monrovia, which then allowed the company to distribute humanitarian supplies to NGOs and provide rice and other necessities to workers living on the farm.

Firestone worked with all relevant parties to ensure that there was minimal damage to the plant and facilities, that its employees received food, medicine and other crucial items…

Firestone also assisted NGOs in transporting vital goods to Liberia. For example, a U.S. State Department cable on July 29, 1991, praises Firestone as an “NGO” playing a major role in relief operations as it worked with such groups as Catholic Relief Services and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in providing food to at least 70,000 persons.

Reaction to claims by the interim government in Monrovia in 1993 that Firestone had provided communication facilities, a supply base and weapons and ammunition storage for the 1992 assault on Monrovia known as Operation Octopus:

Operation Octopus was designed as a coordinated strike from various parts of Liberia, with the target of Monrovia. Taylor’s armed forces were able to move through the Firestone concession at will. Firestone had no ability to defend its property, resources or equipment.

On the question of Firestone seeking compensation from its insurers based on the claim that the events in Liberia had not been a war:

Firestone sought to recover losses to its property and production that resulted from the situation in Liberia. The company pursued coverage under the terms of its policy because the company believed damage occurred as a result of a civil conflict rather than a conventional war. In fact, most of the damage that occurred at Firestone Liberia was the result of looting. Firestone understood that the insurer had a different interpretation of events, and all parties were willing to let the courts have the last word. Fortunately, Firestone and its insurers were able to arrive at a negotiated settlement.

How Firestone saw its role, if any, in the rise of Taylor:

At no time did Firestone have a collaborative relationship with Charles Taylor. The company’s activities were focused on protecting its employees and property.  The company had no ability to stop Taylor’s forces from using the plantation for any purposes. The management team relied on the guidance of officials who specialize in foreign policy, and were in regular communication regarding Firestone’s operation with the U.S. government, including the State Department and U.S. Embassy, throughout this period.

Firestone had no role in the rise of Charles Taylor. It had no role in his ability to hold power in Liberia. Charles Taylor was able to take over most of the country in just two weeks because the repressive Doe government was so deeply unpopular. Taylor had many supporters among respected governments and individuals, some enthusiastic, some simply recognizing his political and military power and hoping that he would be a better alternative to Doe.

Does Firestone believe it did the right thing? Yes. Do we, along with former U.S. presidents, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and many leaders around the world who worked with Charles Taylor regret the war criminal he became? Yes.

Firestone’s decision to remain in Liberia was very costly for the company. The company continues to rebuild, but along with its Liberian employees Firestone was able to preserve an important economic asset for Liberia, and we are proud of that.

A characterization of Firestone’s operations in Liberia since the war:

Firestone Liberia is a leading employer in Liberia, offering among the best wages and benefits in the region to the company’s employees and their families. This includes free housing, subsidized food, paid time off and a pension upon retirement.

Firestone Liberia’s entry-level workers are among the highest-paid in the country for the jobs they perform. Specific wages vary according to the employee’s position and responsibilities, and working conditions at Firestone Liberia are negotiated directly with FAWUL (Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia).

Additionally, we are very proud of the education and medical care we provide to our employees and their families. The company operates 27 schools that employees’ dependents may attend at no cost.  Firestone’s medical facilities, including Firestone Medical Center at the rubber farm and a number of smaller clinics, are also available to treat workers and their families as part of the company’s free healthcare benefit programs.

The total compensation we offer our employees is not only competitive but among the very best in the region.

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