Banner Image: A Golden Veroleum Liberia signboard in Butaw, Sinoe County. The DayLight/Harry Browne

By James Harding Giahyue

  • Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) dismissed 14 of its workers for their alleged involvement in a riot in Butaw in May 2015
  • The former employees lodged a complaint against the company for constructive dismissal and unfair labor practice with the Sinoe County Labor Office in February last year
  • GVL lawyers have failed to attend seven out of 10 pre-investigation hearings and case has been moved to a full investigation
  • Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and Friends of the Earth Netherlands accuses GVL of “trying to deny the dismissed workers justice”. Golden Agri Resources (GAR), GVL’s investors, denies the accusation

BUTAW, Sinoe County – Fourteen former workers of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), have challenged their dismissals by the company at the Sinoe County Labor Office, and are demanding reinstatement and retroactive pay or a payoff.

The former employees, mainly fieldworkers, were accused by the Indonesian company of participating in the infamous May 25, 2015 riot in Butaw, according to documents from the Labor Office on the case. The riot left  one dead and over US$7,000 of the company’s properties destroyed. The former workers were all jailed without trial and released a year later. One inmate died in prison and another shortly after their release in 2016.

The 14 complainants are Sunday Okusu Sackor, Vincent Koon, Adolphus Tarpeh, Otis Chea, Franklin Duaryenneh, Luton Snohtee, Edwin Palay, Obie Karbah, Josephus Weagbah, Rufus Tiawroh, Titus Teah, Fred Henry and Samuel Yabbah and Erick Dayklee. They all worked in GVL’s palm plantation in Butaw. They are being  represented by Atty. Sagie Kamara of the Heritage Partners and Associates Inc. (HPA).

They filed the “constructive dismissal and unfair labor practice” case on February 18 last year, more than four years after their release. In it, they allege they were verbally told of their dismissals and denied access to their workplaces, the case documents show.

“GVL has not only refused to permit us to return to work but refused to pay us our salaries and other benefits we are entitled to by virtue of the contracts of employment,” they say in the complaint.

“Allow us to resume work in our respective positions and places of assignment, pay us our salaries and other benefits for the period of our detention up to and including the date and time we are recalled,” they say in the complaint, adding they would accept a payoff.

GVL, Liberia’s largest oil palm company, holds 220,000 hectares of land in Sinoe, Maryland and Grand Kru for 65 years in a 2010 deal worth US$1.6 billion. The company was  reprimanded in 2018 by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—the certification body for oil palm companies across the world—for land-grab and labor breaches.    

NGOs Urge GVL Investors to Take Action

GVL’s legal team headed by Jones and Jones law firm and the company’s inhouse lawyer, Atty. Garpeh Wilson, has attended only three of 10 pre-investigation hearings, according to minutes of the proceedings The DayLight analyzed. Between October 22 last year—when the first hearing took place—to April 29—the last one—GVL has given an excuse for bad roads, asked for the recusal of the hearing officer Elwoods Monger, and denied it received the former workers’ complaint. 

Some GVL employees at work in Butaw, Sinoe County. Harry Browne/The DayLight

The Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, who are supporting the complainants in the case, have written Golden Agri Resources (GAR)—GVL’s majority shareholders—on the company’s alleged stalling of the proceedings.  

“We are constrained to, however, draw your attention to the dilatory tactics being employed by your investee GVL to frustrate the ends of justice and deny members of the indigenous community their right to be heard as well as fair and fast trial,” the two nongovernmental organizations said in the letter to the world’s second largest palm oil company last week.

“Given that you have significant management of and other control over GVL, including the obligation for GVL to adhere to your social and environmental policy, we request your timely intervention to promote, protect and ensure the rights of customary communities and GVL workers,” it added.  GAR prohibits firms it invests in from violating the rights of workers.

GAR, however, denies its Liberian subsidiary did anything wrong but said it was investigating the matter.      

“Based on the information available to us right now, there is no evidence to confirm that GVL has intended to delay the legal proceedings,” said Dr. Götz Martin, the head of the Singaporean company’s sustainability implementation, in an email. “GVL is keen to seek an amicable solution with the complainants.”   

An amicable solution might be possible but the case has been moved to full investigation. Christian Tababo, Sinoe County’s Labor Commissioner, has replaced Monger, who recused himself from the rest of the case.  Once the Labor Office concludes its investigation, the matter could be moved to court.

The next hearing is yet to be announced.

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