Labour Practices in the Rubber Industry

The global trade in natural rubber is beset by poor working conditions and unsustainable practices, according to a number of recent reports. Most rubber continues to be harvested by small, locally owned plantations. The rubber tappers that work them are paid by quota, in the absence of modern labour codes like minimum wages or worker safety protections. The work is dangerous, as tappers are subjected to injury, ranging from machete wounds and snakebites to acid burns received during processing.

According to a 2016 US State Department report, forced labour is employed in rubber plantations in Burma, Côte d’Ivoire, and Liberia. Another report from the US Department of Labor found that child labour is employed in Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Liberia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In Vietnam, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, the governments have overseen land grabs on behalf of foreign firms, according to Global Witness.

These abuses are being fuelled by a global slump in the price of rubber, following its peak in 2011. The economic viability of many, especially small rubber plantations has been undermined by the low prices, forcing them to cut wages, reduce investments in safety and resort to child and forced labour to make ends meet.

Many smallholders have been forced into poverty, driving some to sell their land to larger companies. The downward pressure on wages has led some families of tappers to keep their children out of school so that they can work alongside their parents, in order to make their quotas. This keeps them out of school, relegating them to a lifetime of poverty.

Rubber is still mostly grown, harvested, and processed by smallholders who deal globally through brokers. Because the rubber is cured through mixing with acid on site at the plantations, its country of origin can be obscure. Nonetheless, investigations have revealed connections between abuses and some of the world’s top firms.

The most notorious instance of abusive labour practices in this industry occurred at Firestone’s plantations in Liberia, where the company made widespread use of child and forced labour, and continued to harvest rubber in collusion with the infamous warlord Charles Taylor throughout that country’s civil war (1999-2003).

In 2013, Global Witness found that international financial firms, Deutsche Bank and the International Finance Corporation, assisted two large Vietnamese rubber companies, Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), in grabbing up land in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The Burmese state has seized land from the Rohingya Muslims following the recent forced deportation to be converted to rubber plantations for Sein Wut Hmon, a Burmese rubber company that is in close alliance with the ruling junta.

The Fair Rubber Association (FRA) brings together NGOs, suppliers, and buyers of natural rubber in a multi-stakeholder initiative. The organization aims to ensure a fair trade premium is paid to plantations, and that this premium is spent on improving the working and living conditions of the rubber tappers. It also ensures that producers obtain a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification or equivalent, which establishes that environmentally friendly practices are being employed.

End users of natural rubber can contribute to sustainable and map the supply chains to the source, so that they can be sure the rubber they are buying derives from fair trade sources. General Motors and Michelin have both taken steps towards sustainability and develop in the communities where they source their rubber.

But they can do more, refusing to source rubber from countries, like Burma, that continue to force people off their land for rubber production. And they can refuse to purchase rubber from companies, like those mentioned above, that are implicated in these land seizures or other forms of abuses.

If you want to get involved, you can write to companies that use rubber in their products. You can look for the FRA logo on products you can buy, or you can join the Fair Rubber Association or any of its initiatives.