Banner Image: A GVL Signboard in Sinoe County. The DayLight/Harry Browne

By Varney Kamara

MONROVIA – A case involving 14 dismissed workers of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) and the company has been transferred to Monrovia from Sinoe County, an important stage in the parties’ efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement.

GVL had requested the transfer of the case. It said that the Elwood Monger, who was hearing the matter, recused himself as he had already been retired as labor officials of the county. 

“I therefore advise that based on their request and attached documents, the case be [transferred to] Monrovia with all relevant documents for adjudication,” a communication to Sinoe County’s Labor Office from the office of the regional labor affairs in Monrovia read.

In February last year, 14 former workers of GVL filed a complaint at the Labor office in Sinoe County. In their grievance, the workers accused GVL of constructive dismissal and unfair labor practice.

Butaw, Sinoe County, the setting of a 2015 riot in which at least one person died. The DayLight/Harry Browne

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. 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 workers allege in their complaint 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.

Employees affected by the sacking include 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).  

The dismissals have also triggered angry reaction from human rights and civil society groups. 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.

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 latest dispute is just one of several bad labor cases that have engulfed the company’s 11-yearf operation in Liberia. In 2018, GVL was reprimanded by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—the certification body for oil palm companies across the world—for land-grab and labor breaches.

Transferring the case to Monrovia, one of three regions in Liberia’s southeast where GVL operates its oil palm concession, is a major twist in attempts aimed at amicably resolving the matter.

The company’s legal team headed by Jones and Jones law firm and the company’s in house 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. 

The matter, which is at the conference stage could result to an amicable resolution or lead to a lawsuit , depending on the outcome of the labor officials’ investigation. 

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