25 February 2013

Liberia: Sime Darby Labeled 'Slave Camp'

In spite of reports that the odd practice of slavery was globally banished decades ago, workers at the Sime Derby, a Malaysian company that entered into a concession agreement with Liberia to invest in oil palm, claim they are living in slavery.

The company is involved in planting 20,000 hectares of land in parts of Bong, Gbarpolu, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount counties for the production of oil palm and other crops, but workers claim two of the concession areas in Bomi and Cape Mount counties are

"slave camps" where "social injustices" against them (workers) persist on a daily basis.

But the company denies the allegation saying that the workers' concerns were addressed at a round-table meeting witnessed by the representatives of the Ministry of Labor, including the Labor Commissioner of Bomi County, Mr. Sieh G. Johnson.

"This is a slave camp. All of the houses here on this plantation are leaking. When it rains, people put their pots and other items on their beds to avoid the flood, and properties from being spoiled.

"In one of the camps, we asked the management to renovate those houses, they haven't. Since the time of BF Goodrich, the same roofing that was on those houses are the same you see there today. This is unacceptable; this is really inhumane," said Daniel Gayflor, secretary general of Sime Derby Workers Union.

Sime Derby has faced series of criticisms over the past months including a Global Witness report accusing it of abusing the forest and the natural resources while some citizens accused them of claiming their farmlands without compensations.

The company had earlier denied these reports though it is yet to respond to the emerging ones from the workers, despite persistence efforts to contact them on the issue.

At the farm during a tour by the National Independent Human Right Commission (NIHRC), the workers claimed that the company is abusing their rights.

They alleged that the company does not care about their health and as such, it provides no standard facility to cater to their health needs despite the risk of laboring on the farm.

The workers disclosed that instead of building a befitting hospital for them, the company built a "clinic," and bought a "taxi" to be used as ambulance for them on the farm.

"Pregnant women go to hospital on motorbikes. You also see baby mothers with their babies wrapped in cloths on motorbike taking them to hospital; all of these things make sicknesses worst for our people.

"Sime Derby should now go beyond clinic and have a modern hospital here because referral can also cause delay. We want a hospital here. In the absence of hospital, they should bring a 16-seater bus to carry our people to hospital," Gayflor stressed.

He said the company also expose the tappers to danger by compelling them to climb on "tall withered trees" to get their required daily latex poundage.

The workers recently went on a go-slow strike against the management to press them to address these concerns.

But Grace Mason, president of the Workers Union said their conditions are yet to be addressed as the farm manager continues to dismiss their members at random.

"As we speak now, he has dismissed several employees from the company applying 15-0-8 on them. We don't know the meaning of that code; when he is ready for his action, he just say 15-0-8 and put them down," she said.

"The women, they transport them in tractors to go to work. Recently, they (women) had an accident.

"The people work here in fear. They suppress us on the job. The workers are not treated fine on the farm. For the past six months, no ambulance was on the farm. Last week, the situation caused lots of death rate on the farm. Because of no ambulance, nothing is under control here; everything is just loose. Lewis Yakpawolo, a superintendent on one of the farms died due to no ambulance," she disclosed.

The provision of adequate and better quality educational services to the concession area is also a basic social corporate responsibility of the Sime Derby Company. But investigation conducted suggests that the company is not doing well in the provision of this social compact too.

Tamba Dauda, acting Supervising Principal of the Sime Derby Central High School said in-spite of several pleas on the company, for them to provide some basic services for the upgrading of the school; they are yet to do so.

He could not however elaborate further but said that the company's school system in the farm needs the company's urgent attention.

Other workers said that the buses that the company provided for the transportation of the students to and from the school are not road worthy."

But Eugene Fahnbulleh, the company's Account, Finance and Assistance Administrator in Grand Cape Mount County where most of these incidents are said to be taking place, declined to comment on the matter, saying he was not clothed with the authority to speak for Sime Darby.

Mr. James Torh, a Commissioner at the NIHRC, said his institution has already received the complaints of the workers and they would address them.

"The workers raised specific issues that have to do with transportation, more salary and a couple of other things. We have already started the process; we are trying to bring the workers and the management together to make sure that we have the accurate picture of what is happening there and then we can know what best to do.

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