Emmanuel B is 30, a slender five foot three, and a labourer whose piercing brown eyes tell unspeakable truths. He’s not the kind of slave-labourer we’re familiar with from 19th-century plantations in the Deep South of the United States. Instead, Emmanuel is a modern-day plantation labourer in 21st-century, post-conflict Liberia, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company is his unyielding master. Like many workers on Firestone’s largest rubber plantation, Emmanuel was born in Harbel, has lived in Harbel all his life, and will most likely waste away in Harbel.
As westerners drive around in their heavy-duty SUVs, propelled along on the black gold of Firestone tires, Emmanuel wakes up at the crack of dawn to tap raw latex from 800 rubber trees daily. His clothes are tattered and his shoulders covered in red pus-infected blisters from carrying buckets full of raw latex suspended from an iron pole to the Firestone processing plant two miles from his tapping site.
Emmanuel was gracious enough to demonstrate what a tapper does from sun-up to mid-morning.
With a pitchfork suspended in the air, he extended his long wiry arms to ease the raw latex out of the trees and into the small red cups that catch it. The drip-drip-drip of the white-coated liquid was almost as laborious to witness as Emmanuel’s daily task – another 799 trees still to go after this one.
For Emmanuel and his fellow tappers, a 5am start is the only means of meeting their daily quotas; their wages are reduced by half if they fail to do so. Some have begun to use their children to complete the Herculean task.
I visited the Firestone rubber plantation for the first time in December 2006 while on a research fact-finding mission. I decided to take a break from high browed academic work, and visit the sprawling modern day encampment I had heard so many horror stories about. It’s what I imagined the South to look like during the century or so of chattel slavery in the United States, with the hustle bustle activity of plantation life and the accompanying strokes of exploitation.
As my brother-in-law, Christopher Pabai, and I pulled into the one million acre – and constantly expanding – plantation, we were welcomed by an ungodly stench, a stench I can only compare to the smell of rotten cheese. Not just ordinary rotten cheese, but the kind that has been drenched in burning oil, steamrolled on a conveyor belt, and neatly packaged for nonhuman consumption. That’s what raw latex smells like when it’s being processed.
Rather than wearing masks to protect their noses from the assault, the plantation workers ingest the foul stench day in and day out. It took all my willpower not to retch all over Firestone’s perfectly manicured lawn or lush green golf course that senior management frequents while on hiatus from their back-breaking overseeing.
But the foul stench is the least of the workers’ worries.
While England celebrates its 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, plantation workers in Liberia are trapped in a time warp of monumental proportions. They exist in the parallel universe of multinational corporate checkmate, where the prize goes to the highest exploiter. Firestone has been playing the chess pieces of Liberia’s rubber pawns since the company signed a concession agreement with the Liberian government in 1926 to lease one million acres of land for six cents per acre – an abominable exchange given the astronomical dividends garnered from rubber sales then and now.
In 2005, Liberia’s transitional government signed another concession agreement for an extra 37 years of rubber slavery. Rubber is Liberia’s largest export, and Firestone its largest international corporate exploiter, I mean employer, to date. The country and its people have paid a high price for the asymmetrical relationship.
History challenges us to stay on a forward moving dialectic of change. The Firestone example shows us that an ironic distortion of that dialectic is taking place right under our noses. Slavery isn’t dead, it’s manufactured in the rubber we use daily. We owe it to Emmanuel and his comrades on the Firestone Rubber Plantation to change the course of history, to make a clean break from modernday slavery and its peculiar 21stcentury manifestations. We owe it to ourselves.
For more information on the struggle against Firestone, visit the Stop Firestone Campaign website. Liberian native Robtel Neajai Pailey is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and a multi-media producer for Fahamu/ Pambazuka News, which has published a longer version of this article
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill