I want to tell you about the remote town of Harbel, Liberia and the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), which has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of workers and their children. The union just won the Department of Labor’s 2010 Iqbal Masih Award, an award that Congress established to recognize extraordinary efforts to end the worst forms of child labor. This award is given in remembrance of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child carpet weaver who was sold into slavery at the age of four. He escaped his servitude to become an outspoken advocate against child labor before losing his life at the age of 13.
FAWUL won the award for their efforts on behalf of children on the Firestone rubber plantation in Harbel. For years, children had labored on the plantation alongside their parents to meet the quotas for tapping rubber trees. FAWUL was established in 2007, and by 2008 it had negotiated a landmark collective bargaining agreement that reduced the quotas by 25% and banned child labor on the plantation. In 2010, FAWUL negotiated a second contract with Firestone that went further. Under it, the company agreed to provide children living on the plantation with better schools. I imagine the children of Harbel no longer laboring in hot fields, but instead eagerly going to school with the same bright hopes for the future as our children have.
FAWUL’s success shows how unions can transform the lives not only of workers but of children and how dedication and perseverance can make a real difference in the fight against child labor. It is also a testament to the importance of international solidarity. The United Steel Workers worked jointly with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center and the leaders of FAWUL and other unions to organize training programs addressing child labor issues. FAWUL’s work has brought hope to the rubber workers of Harbel and to their children. It is a model of what is possible when unions and employers work together to address real problems. I applaud FAWUL for bringing hope to the rubber workers and the children of Harbel.
Sandra Polaski is Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs