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(MONROVIA, LIBERIA – Friday, February 14, 2014) President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf held meetings on Friday, February 14, with stakeholders in the rubber industry on resolving issues ranging from a decent work environment to the activities of smallholder farmers.

According to an Executive Mansion release, President Sirleaf met with the leadership of the Firestone Agriculture and Allied Workers Union (FAWUL) and the National Rubber Brokers and Farmers Union of Liberia (NARBFUL).

Responding to complaints and recommendations outlined to her by the leadership of FAWUL, President Sirleaf said that the government is committed to protecting trade unions across the country, and expects the same from them to their employers and to the government.

She promised to order an assessment of FAWUL’s complaint that the Firestone Plantation has lowered the standard of the housing units, departing from the 10-year plan that had been agreed between the government and management. Under that agreement, Firestone agreed to improve housing units from a one-bedroom apartment to at least two bedrooms with other facilities, including kitchen, living room and bathrooms.

On the availability of drugs to medical facilities in the concession area, the President said she was equally concerned, but reminded Union officials that the availability of drugs was not a problem for Firestone alone but also for government, due to Liberia’s transition from aid to development status. As a result, the government and other drug procuring organizations operating in the country have to now bear the burden of purchasing drugs, at increased prices sometimes, thereby affecting their availability locally. She, however, assured the delegation that government will continue to make health care a priority and to encourage Firestone to also see it that way.

Concerning the Decent Work Bill, President Sirleaf said that what was intended to be an initiative to further improve workers’ conditions had become a political tool for those seeking elected posts, thereby stalling the intent of the Bill. She expressed the hope that the Legislature will see reason to pass it into law during this sitting.

President Sirleaf also called upon stakeholders in the rubber industry, including the Ministry of Agriculture, to work with plantation and factory owners to create a system where some money could be placed into a stabilization fund intended to rescue the industry whenever there is low yield, as experienced by Firestone, and confirmed by FAWUL in the meeting with President Sirleaf.

At the close of the meeting, the FAWUL leadership, which included president Austin Natee, vice president Joseph Tarnue, and secretary general Edwin Cisco, among others, pledged to work with the management of Firestone to address the concerns and constraints presented to President Sirleaf.

At the second meeting, the leadership of the National Rubber Brokers and Farmers Union appealed to President Sirleaf to reconsider Executive Order #50, which places a moratorium on the exportation of unprocessed rubber, and a halt on rubber brokers serving as buyers.

According to the group, the Order has put many smallholder farmers out of business because Firestone no longer provides transportation assistance to them in getting their commodity to its buying stations. Doing business was easier, they said, when brokers were allowed to buy from them at their farms and later sell to Firestone or other competitors.

In response, President Sirleaf insisted that the moratorium will remain in force, but instructed the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, to work out modalities with Firestone to purchase rubber produced by smallholders. She reminded the delegation that the moratorium was issued, among other things, to halt the exportation of unprocessed rubber across the border which, she said, was causing Liberia huge losses in revenue.

The President also instructed Minister Chenoweth to look into the report of overlapping functions among the various rubber organizations – the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia, the Rubber Development Association, the National Rubber Brokers and the Farmers Union – and determine if there is a need to reduce the number.

Other officials of Government present at the meeting included: Commerce Minister Axel Addy, Acting Justice Minister Wheatonia Dixon-Barnes, and Deputy Labor Minister for Administration, J. Cole Bangalu.

The National Rubber Brokers and Farmers Union were represented by former Senator Roland Kaine, Board Chair; James Sayekea, President; and former Agriculture Minister Dr. Roland Massaquoi as a Board Member.