UPDATE 2-Strike disrupts Liberia Firestone rubber output


(Updates with quotes, details)

By Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA, April 27 (Reuters) - Liberian police used teargas on Friday to disperse striking workers at Bridgestone Corp's Firestone rubber plantation, where a labour stoppage is disrupting production, witnesses and officials said.

"This strike action is certainly affecting work at our plantation," a local Firestone spokesman, Rufus Karmoe, told Reuters by telephone, without offering further details of the impact on output.

Japanese-owned tyre maker Firestone is one of few international industrial employers in Liberia. The West African state is struggling to get back on its feet after more than a decade of brutal civil war, which ended in 2003.

Liberia's Labour Minister Kofi Woods appealed to the Firestone workers to refrain from violence.

"Strike action is not good. It does not help the economy, the company, the government and even the workers. So, we are calling on them to remain calm as we look into their grievances," he told Reuters.

Witnesses at the 240-square-mile plantation outside the capital Monrovia said the Liberian police, backed by United Nations police officers, moved against the strikers after they hurled stones and tried to stop other employees from working.

Seven people were hurt and the police made several arrests, they added. Police reinforcements were deployed.

The strikers began their protest a few days ago to demand improved work benefits, early union leadership elections and the start of negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement.

Woods said an interim management team "will look into elections soon". The strikers were also demanding the immediate resignation of the plantation's Industrial Manager Feay Roberts.

The Firestone plantation, which is home to more than 6,000 official workers, has experienced a number of protests by employees over pay and working conditions in recent years.

In May last year, the government asked the company to improve living conditions at the site.

In November 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against Firestone, alleging conditions at the Liberian plantation amounted to virtual slavery.

But the tyre maker denied the allegations, saying the daily wage it paid employees was well above the national average and that it provided free healthcare and schooling for the workers and their families.



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