Monrovia – A group of current and past aggrieved employees of the Plant Protection Department (PPD) of Firestone Liberia has accused the management of “doing all within its powers” to deny them justice in a US$1.6 million lawsuit against the company.
Report by Gerald C. Koinyeneh, [email protected]
The case is currently at the Supreme Court of Liberia, where it has been on the docket for more than two years.
According to the PPD workers, the legal wrangling between them and Firestone has been ongoing for almost a decade and despite the lower courts ruling in their favor, the company continues to use it financial influence to deny them justice.
The workers noted that following a ruling by the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Margibi County over allegations of bad labor practice, in which the court ordered the company to pay the workers close to US$1.6 million, the company took an appeal to the Supreme Court, but it has since been working behind the scene covertly to delay the proceedings.
FrontPage Africa contacted Firestone to response to the allegation, but up to press time, there was no response.
According to court documents in possession of FrontPage Africa, a group of PPD workers on August 11, 2009 complained the Firestone’s management to the Ministry of Labor alleging, among other things that since May 2006 they have been denied by management to form part of the Firestone Agriculture Worker Union of Liberia (FAWUL), and were made to report to work earlier (7:30am) than the normal time (8:00am) and were denied lunch breaks and made to leave work one hour and thirty minutes later than the normal knockout period.
They also contended that the management deducted US$300.00 from each active employee as collateral bond for uniform without their consent and also denied them other benefits including transportation and rice ration.
Documents show that during the hearing, the Ministry of Labor, among other things gathered that Firestone’s management did not deny the aggrieved workers membership to FAWUL, the management confirmed that it deducted US$300.00 from every active employee and refunded same following the termination of their service, that the management agreed to denying the PPD officers lunch break due the nature of their work, but it paid employees in this category US$1 daily.
Documents further show that the officers of the Division of Labor Standards of the Ministry of Labor made the following recommendations:
“That the PPD officers who are not holding confidential position be a part of the membership of FAWUL consistent with the ILO convention; that even though there was no binding agreement for the deduction of the US$300.00 as collateral bond, said deduction was too high and should be reduced to US$150 with an agreement; that the payment of US$1 as overtime across the board was not just and that overtime and lunch breaks are calculated differently and that the paid-off employees be provided transportation allowance consistent with article 7 of the CBA between the workers and Firestone.”
The court’s paper further showed that the company refused to abide by the ministry’s ruling and after waiting for almost seven months, the workers went back to the Ministry of Labor and this time hired a lawyer to pursue their complaints before the Labor hearing Officer, Albert Jallah.
The hearing commenced on May 6, 2010 and by October 7, 2010, after both parties rested with the production of evidence, the hearing officer ruled that the issues of transportation allowances, payment of money as collateral for uniform, the right to association with the worker union and overtime payment were resolved amicably during the mediation process, and as such he will only dwell on the issue of rest periods (lunch breaks).
He ruled that all of the non-active employees, 77 in total be paid the amount of US$29.332.24 and active employees be given US$219,920.94
However, the documents states that both parties were not satisfied with the latest ruling and filed in their respective petitions for judicial reviews (appeal to review the previous ruling) before the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Margibi County.
The Firestone Management in its petition, among other things called on the court to review and correct the calculation employed by the hearing officers in arriving at the figures allotted to the individual category of complainants, that no further relief should be granted to complainants that were paid off and that there were miscalculations by the hearing officer in the computation of lunch payment.
The aggrieved workers, on the other hand prayed the court to review and correct the ruling of the Hearing Officer when he refused to consider the allegations of the US$300.00 deduction, undelivered rice ration and transportation and calculation and payment of overtime work.
The Circuit Court ruling
At the Circuit Court, the hearing was presided over by Her Honor, Mardea Tarr-Chenoweth, Resident Circuit Judge.
In the court’s verdict handed down on April 11, 2012, the Judge, among other things declared that the US$300.00 deduction from the active PPD was not justified and violated Article 38 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement which called on the company to provide safety equipment and protective clothing to employees, and that the calculation by the Hearing officer was inconsistent with the evidence presented.
The Judge then ruled in favor of the aggrieved workers, ordering the company to pay the sum of US$1,162,898.36 for the active employees (331 persons) and US$104,335.34 for 64 non-active or terminated employees.
Firestone took excepted to the ruling and announced an appeal at the Supreme Court.
Allegation of foul play
According to the aggrieved workers, after the ruling by the Circuit Court, the company connived with their aggrieved party lawyer, Cllr. David Woah of KEMP & Associates, and make them to accept a payment of US$200,000 as part payment of the money, and after the balance could not be paid, they went back to their lawyer, but he refused to prevail on the company.
They alleged that out of the US$200,000, the company give US$66,000 to their lawyer, Cllr. David Woah, and the company, along with their him forged their (worker) signatures on a document it presented to then Associate Justice Philip A. Z. Banks, claiming that the workers have waived the case, and they have amicably settled it.
“After the Circuit Court ordered the company to pay us the money. They called us and told us that they would give us some of the money. After they gave us the small money, they forged our signature and took it before the then Associate Justice Philip Banks claiming that we have waived the case. So, after we hired a new lawyer who is Cllr. Syrenus Cephus, he asked for the original copy of the document that have our original signatures, but up to now, they have not presented it,” Gabriel K. Parkinson, former employee, Firestone Liberia Inc.
But Cllr. Woah denied the workers’ allegation and claimed that he was not involved with any Payment. He explained that after the Circuit Court handed down the verdict in his clients’ favor, they (clients) went to him and informed him that the company wanted to pay part payment of the money, but he advised them not to accept anything less than the full payment.
Because the workers were desperate to receive the money, adamant he refused to go get involve. because it was not in their favor.
“After they told me that firestone wanted to give them certain amount, I refused to take part in it. They had their discussion with Firestone and Firestone drafted their documents. It was later that they came to me and said the money was not enough. So, for them to come to me and say that Firestone gave me certain money to close my mouth is a lie,” he refuted.
FPA contacted Firestone via email for response concerning the allegation, but the company did not respond up to press time.
Meanwhile, the workers’ new lawyer, Cllr. Syrenus Cephus has called on the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court’s verdict as the evidence is glaring that the company is guilty.
“The people took an appeal. And while the appeal is pending, Firestone paid the workers part of the money. So, there’s no way that this Supreme Court that claim to be neutral and independent will want to have another long hearing when the confession is already there. The fact that they paid the people part of the money constitutes a confession. What justification can the Supreme Court provide for not making them to pay the people? So, they must pay the people the balance which is about US$1.4 million,” he asserted.
FPA was unable to reach the Supreme Court to ascertain as to when the case will be assigned as all effort to reach the Supreme Court to comment on the case proofed futile. We wrote a communication to Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, but we didn’t get a response until press time.
However, an anonymous inside source told FPA that the case is expected to be open during this term of court.
Our source said the case was delayed during the past two sittings due to the legal political wrangling of the last two years.