Howbeit, the Government of Liberia signed two separate concession agreements with Cavalla Rubber Corporation (CRC) and Maryland Oil Palm Plantation (MOPP), subsidiaries of the SIFCA Group, an Ivorian agribusiness company, to operate the former Decoris, Inc. and Firestone Plantations in Maryland County for the next twenty-five years respectively beginning in 2011, without the involvement of the locals. The concession area is situated 710 km from Monrovia.
The investment package which began long before the ratification of the concessions in 2011, according to the Liberian government, was part of efforts to revitalize the commercial agriculture sector- a sector that had been dormant for several years due to the war. In spite of this expectation, reality on the ground is awful and prominent citizens of the county have opined that the decision has turned out to be a complete flop and disappointingly a torn in flesh of the citizens of the county because the companies have incessantly subjected employees to inhumane treatment.
Since the signing and subsequent ratification of the concession agreements, the managements of the plantations have been confronted with allegations of employment fraud, including hiring of illegal aliens and gross consistent abuse of Liberian workers and violation of the Liberian Labor Law; illegal land grabs; arbitrary dismissals; poor housing facilities and hazardous working environment. They have also been accused of transporting workers in tractor buckets like cattle; bad roads that usually put the safety of pregnant women on thin lines; lack of proper medical care for employees and the desecration of indigenous sacred sites, among others.
On this basis, The Capitol Insider’s Senior Staff Writer, Michael Roberts, embarked on an expedition to Maryland County to investigate the matter and ascertain the authenticity of the allegations.
After riding through the thick forests of Nimba, Grand Gedeh and River Gee counties for fifty-two hours or more, I was welcomed by the chilling news of the dismissal of one hundred and sixty two employees from the Maryland Oil Palm Plantation, one of the subsidiaries of SIFCA. The decision by the company to reportedly sack these workers came just on the heels of ongoing negotiations for striking workers to return to work after staying away from the plantation for more than two weeks over the demand for the removal of one of the top management team members who was accused of hiring aliens to work on the plantation and paying them higher wages compared to locals.
Walking through the company’s operation area during my four days fact-finding visit, I saw a fleet of tractor buckets heading from the MOPP side of the concession area greeting me from afar. Bearing in mind that livestock such as goats, sheep, and cows are the animals that are plenteous in every community within the region, I wrongly thought that the owners of these cattle were transporting them from one location to another in those tractors.
As the chain of moving equipment came closer, chill ran down my spine as I discovered that more than 75 Liberians, women and men, were being made to ride such plastic-covered tractor buckets with little ventilation. According to Sam Jarwee, an employee of MOPP, these moving equipment can only take 20 persons at a time.
These were just tips of the iceberg as the employment of a dominant foreign staff at senior management level as well as unskilled laborers was clearly flouting section 13.1 of the concession agreement which requires that “investor shall in no case hire non-Liberian nationals for unskilled labor position and preference should be given to qualified Liberians for employment at all levels.
It states: “The Investor’s Employment practices shall conform to Law. In no case shall the Investor hire non-Liberian nationals for unskilled labor positions. Investor shall give preference for employment at all levels of financial, accounting, technical, administrative, supervisory and senior management positions and other skilled positions to qualified Liberian nationals as and when they become available…” At the moment, only two Liberians are in senior management positions: Human Resource Manager and Deputy Managing Director.
Further investigation established that notwithstanding the granting of duty and tax exemptions to these subsidiaries of SIFCA by the Government of Liberia for 15 and 22 years respectively, the concessionaires have not been able to improve the living standard of their employees. Workers are living in slum communities with dilapidated structures, lack of bathroom and toilet facilities, safe drinking water and electricity in contravention of Section 10.4 of the concession agreement, which states that “the investor shall ensure that all employee residential communities within the Developed Area are being supplied on a regular basis with clean and safe drinking water in accordance with Law and all employee housing is equipped with a working system to pipe water into each unit of family housing and each unit of shared housing and all common water sources are easily accessible from employees’ homes within the Developed Area.”
Worse of all, the companies have failed to construct a health center that is up to international standards as enshrined in Section 10.1 of the concession agreements which requires that “investor shall provide modem public health conditions in the Developed Area in accordance with generally accepted health and sanitation procedures and Law for employees. As a result of the companies’ failure to adhere to this clause, workers are currently being taken to the government-run J.J. Dossen Hospital in Harper for medical attention because the clinic owned by the company can treat nothing more than malaria or typhoid fever.
‘They don’t care about our wellbeing. All they want is for us to do their work. Look at the houses we are living in here; our bathrooms are outdoors; no toilet is in the houses; no electricity and water. Every effort to get the management to see reason and renovate these spoiled structures fell on deaf ears,” Mr. Paul Dweh, President of the CRC Workers Union explains at his ‘Doctors Camp’ residence.
He also disclosed that the workers’ unions of the two subsidiaries have been making efforts to get the managements of the companies to at least renovate the housing units they presently reside in.
“When we complain about their deliberate refusal to put these things in place for employees, they usually refer us to government. They always like to scare us with government as if we are not entitled to these benefits and amenities. And whenever we go the Ministry of Labor on these matters, the Ministry will drag its feet in adjudicating the issue. The government will not come until we stage a sit-in action or go slow to vent our anger. Then the government comes and takes side by telling us that our action will scare the investor away from the country. This is our problem. In this case where do we go to seek answers to our concerns? It is good that you are here to see for yourself how these companies are treating us in our own country obviously because the government is not willing to seek our interest at the expense of the brown envelope,” Dweh narrates.
“Frankly, without prejudice, such callous unguided display of the aforementioned sub-human treatment clearly is a classic case of wanton savagery or modern day slavery,” a dismissed female employee tells The Capitol Insider in an interview at the Maryland Youth Center in Pleebo, Sodoken.
“We are made to brush five square feet around each palm tree and one person is responsible for 28 trees a day,” states Lucy Meme Davis at the Youth Center where youth of the county gathered to discuss the inhumane actions meted against employees of the companies.
The ill-treatment of Liberians in the employ of SIFCA’s subsidiaries has drawn the attention of the House of Representatives following a communication from Maryland County lawmaker Bhofal Chambers. A committee has been set up to investigate the information and report to Plenary in two weeks.
At the local level, the Superintendent of Maryland County, Betsy Kuoh, says that discussions are being held between the county leadership, the aggrieved employees and the companies to address the concerns raised, particularly those regarding arbitrary dismissals and poor living conditions and lack of transport facilities for the employees.
According to the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI) Post-Award Process Audit Report by Moore Stephens, there is a series of illegalities in the allocation of both CRC and MOPP’s concession agreements, including failure to adhere to several legal requirements stipulated in the Public Procurement and Concessions Act (PPCA).
Efforts to get comments from SIFCA about these shortcomings in upholding the concession agreement were snubbed by the company’s communications office.
Mr. Martin Nyenkan, Media and Community Relations Officer of SIFCA says that senior members of the management team have vowed not to speak on the matter in spite of the fact that he was contacted several days before my arrival in the county. He however directed this writer to Dr. Abdullah Dukule whom, he says, is the Communication Consultant to SIFCA Group.
But upon being contacted via mobile phone, Dr. Dukule says he has just arrived Liberia from the United States and so he does not have all the details about the questions being asked by this writer. Maintaining that Mr. Nyenkan, who is on the ground, should be in a better position to speak to the matter.
“As I said, there is not much I can say about the purported complaints by workers. Martin is the Media person for SIFCA. I am the wrong person to ask and I really don’t know what to tell you. You went to Pleebo, spoke with workers and took pictures. So, that is the objective way of media. Thanks for the call. Good luck. Dr. Dukule,” he states in his text message.
The message was forwarded to Mr. Martin Nyenkan to inform him about Dr. Dukule’s response, he insisted that it was the policy of the company that he does not speak to media inquiries and he was not willing to breach that protocol.
Ina mobile phone interview, Attorney Neto Lighe, Sr., Minister of Labor, says he is working with all members of the inter-ministerial committee set up to look into the matter to ensure that SIFCA adheres to the provisions of the concession agreement.
Acccording to him, the issue of concessionaires flouting the law is an age-old problem in Liberia, but he is prepared to change that tradition because these vices are taking place in other concession areas across the country and the Labor Ministry is also looking into them.
Culled from The Capitol Insider