3 December 2012

Liberia: Aggrieved BR Workers Accuse Lawmakers of Neglect

Several aggrieved female employees of the Buchanan Renewables (BR) have accused legislators of Grand Bassa County of neglecting them [aggrieved BR employees]. Buchanan Renewables is a privately owned renewable resources and energy company with two core businesses in Grand Bassa County, Liberia. Buchanan Renewables Fuel (BR Fuel) was said to be a biomass producer for power production by converting unproductive rubber trees into woodchips.

The company exports its woodchips to power utilities that use them to reduce their fossil based emissions by substituting biomass for coal. BR Fuel, it was said, ensures the sustainability of its business by making sure that at least one tree is replanted for every tree removed. In the future, the company says unproductive rubber wood will also be used to fuel the 36 megawatt power plant that Buchanan Renewables Power (BR Power) plans to build near Kakata, Liberia. BR Power's plant will produce affordable, reliable base load power in Liberia using renewable, domestic feedstock,said the company, but BR is yet to turn on a single light bulb through its biomass power production program since its coming to Liberia.

The BR employees numbering more than a dozen females assigned at the BR Agriculture Department on Wednesday, 28 November 2012 separately informed the Heritage in exclusive interviews that in spite of slave-like treatments being suffered at the hands of the BR management, the Bassa lawmakers, including Senate Pro-Temp, Senator Gbehzohngar Findley, Deputy Speaker, Hans Barchue, Representatives: Byron Browne, Mary Karwor, Gabriel Smith, Robertson Siaway and Senator John Whitfield, have all "turned their backs on us, as we are suffering here."

According to theBR female employees, the company is accruing very high profits at the expense of their [aggrieved employees] hard labor, while they are left with little or no benefits, adding that the Grand Bassa County lawmakers say or do nothing to improve what they described as "very bad working conditions." "They [Bassa County lawmakers] are not doing anything for us, when they come in their big, big jeep, they enter BR fence, when they finish talking, they come outwith their brown envelops," said one of the aggrieved workers, who along with her colleagues begged to remain anonymous for this report.

Another aggrieved BR employee stated: "I want for them [Bassa lawmakers] to come to our rescue, let them please come to BR people for them to help us to add our money up, because we are suffering." The aggrieved ladies alleged that their bosses, who earn far more than them [aggrieved workers] usually "strain" them to work, adding that at times their bosses resort to insulting them, while on duty; "they are ill-treating us," remarked one of the aggrieved BR employees.

Recently, this paper reported that several female employees of BR are disenchanted over multiple charges against the Management of BR, and have made a call for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's intervention. According to the over a dozen BR female employees, who separately spoke to the Heritage Wednesday 28 November 2012, in exclusive interviews outside Buchanan, Grand Bassa County at one of BR's nursery centers; since 2008, when the company employed them, the BR management has refused to increase their salaries in the face of very hectic and demanding duties.

They narrated that they are required by the BR management to work nine to ten hours daily discharging various duties, including rubber planting, fertilizer application, bud grafting, pruning, de-creeping, weeding and circle weeding. The ladies lamented that BR employed them as unskilled laborers, but that in 2009, they were trained and given various skills, for which the company promised to among other things increase their monthly US$130.00 salary, provide medical and education benefits and feeding and housing allowances, but to date, the aggrieved ladies averred that the company has continued to renege on such promises.

The aggrieved ladies illustrated that following various deductions such as US$2.50, income tax, US$3.90 employee Social Security fund and US$ 2.00 union fee from their gross salary, they are left with US$ 121.6, which they say can barely take care of their needs. They explained that due to the rightful application of their skills, the BR management, which they said nearly spent US$40,000.00 to buy rubber stumps in its first year of operation is now spending less, and no longer buys rubber stumps because of rubber nurseries that they [aggrieved workers] professionally operate for the company.

The BR aggrieved workers added that they go through the risk of going to work in snake infested forests without boots and other safety gears, indicating that the company is completely ignoring matters concerning their [workers] safety. They divulged that they are exposed to water borne diseases due to the lack of safe drinking water at their job site, which constrains them to fetch water from a nearby creek, adding that the drinking of the creek water has on many occasions infected them with chronic diarrhea.

The aggrieved women, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disclosed that the BR management often threatens them whenever they [female workers] approach management about their grievances, alleging that the leadership of the BR workers' union is in cahoots with the BR management to humiliate them. However, when contacted, BR's Public Relations Officer, Benson Whea, who refused to speak on tape, neither denied nor confirmed the aggrieved BR employees' claims, but stated that management was in the process of distributing safety gears to all of its workers.

Regarding the aggrieved workers' call for salary increment, the BR Public Relations Officer referred this paper to the company's workers' union leadership, which the aggrieved employees accused of being in cahoots with the BR management to humiliate them [aggrieved workers].

Meanwhile,it can be recalled that in May of this year, the plenary of the House of Representatives declared the ongoing concession operations of the BR a "dubious and economic trouble" for the country. The Plenary of the House of Representatives, which is the highest decision-making forum for that august body, thereafter unanimously voted to halt all operations of BR, particularly the collection and shipment of wood chips from Liberia to other parts of the world for commercial purposes.

The Lawmakers' decision was predicated upon a report from the Lower House's joint committee, which emanated from several hearings conducted with key stakeholders, including BR's management. The hearings were centered on the company's operations in Liberia. At the time, the House's committees on Investment & Concessions, Judiciary, Contracts & Monopolies, Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries and Lands Mines & Energy were the lead committees that investigated and reported to Plenary.

The legislators stated that BR had gravely reneged on its promises as contained in the contract agreement signed between the company and the Government of Liberia (GoL). According to the BR/GoL contract, BR was expected to collect and turn old and unproductive rubber trees into wood chips from rubber farms in Grand Bassa andMargibi counties. The contract indicates that BR was expected to turn the wood chips into renewable energy to power up Monrovia, Margibi and other parts of the country.

However, since the inception of theBR/GoL contract, BR has been shipping all of its wood chips to Europe and other parts of the world. The Lower House's Plenary, against this backdrop, described the operations of BR as "dubious practices", stating that BR was in the practice of the abrupt change of the name of the company for "very unclear reasons".

Said the lawmakers: "At one point, it is called Buchanan Renewable Energy; another time it is called Buchanan Renewable and then Buchanan Renewable Monrovia. This inconsistency is a cynical business strategy." The lawmakers added that BR "has been operating for the last few years under dubious and cynical circumstances that are very appalling and if nothing is done to arrest the situation, national government will feel the effect of BR's actions."

Additionally, the Lower House's Plenary revealed that BR labor practice remains counterproductive to Liberian laws, adding that such counterproductive labor practice had exposed Liberian laborers and skilled workers to abuse in every imaginable way. For his part, Lofa County District #5 Representative Moses Kollie, who filed the former complaint against BR to the Lower House's Plenary, workers employed with BR were being transferred from one post to another by the BR management with "no improvement or reflection in the salaries of such employees."

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