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Plantation Blues: Female Rubber Tappers in Liberia

Hundreds of women work as tappers on Liberia’s vast rubber plantations, extracting latex from hundreds of trees each day, most of them single mothers or war widows trying to create better lives for their children.

Written by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The home of one of the female rubber tappers on the plantation. Alpha Daffae Senkpeni

Mercy Willie, 39, comes home from a day’s work on the rubber plantation and heads straight to the kitchen. As a widowed, single mother in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, her work is never done: After tapping latex from hundreds of trees every day, she comes home to six children hungry for dinner.

Willie is one of 200 female rubber tappers working for the French-Belgian corporation Liberia Agricultural Company (LAC), the second largest rubber plantation in Liberia, stretching over nearly 299,000 acres (121,000 hectares). For a day’s work, she receives $5.50 – a wage that recently increased in accordance with new labor laws in Liberia.

“I want to work so that I can be able to take care of my children, for them to have a good future,” she says. That means food, as well as the benefits that come with the job: access to healthcare and places at the LAC’s on-site school.

Willie says she has rejected several marriage proposals, despite knowing that a husband could help ease her financial troubles. “People want to marry me, but I’m afraid,” she says. “My husband died during the [Liberian] war and I don’t trust these men that are here now.”

Rubber is one of Liberia’s most important exports, worth about $107 million a year despite falling global prices, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Female tappers such as Willie live with the challenge of waking at 5 a.m. daily, tapping hundreds of trees across as many acres, collecting the latex and rushing home to collect their children from neighbors in time for dinner.

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Inside the simple one-room home of female rubber tappers on the plantation. (Alpha Daffae Senkpeni)

“I have to be strong because I don’t have any other kind of financial support,” Willie says. “If I had a means of getting into other business, I would be happy to leave this job because it is very hard.”

According to Moses Toe, the plantation community leader, being a single mother brings huge social challenges in a post-conflict country such as Liberia. Toe is also the quality control inspector of the plantation, ensuring tappers like Willie meet the company’s standards. He says he prefers the work of female tappers to their male counterparts.

“The female tappers make mistakes sometimes but they are more dedicated to their work,” Toe says. “I think it is because these women want to help themselves; they want to take care of their families. It is not easy for a woman alone in this country to take care of her children.”

As recently as five years ago, there were few female rubber tappers in Liberia. But since then, hundreds of women without formal qualifications – or, in many cases, without a high school education – have been recruited and trained by rubber plantations such as LAC or Liberia’s more famous rubber exporter, Firestone. LAC says it deliberately chose to hire widows or single mothers, who often have limited employment possibilities.

“Most women working here have husbands or [relatives] who died during the war, so they decided to make use of this opportunity,” says Rufus Kamei, a senior supervisor with LAC and a veteran of the rubber industry with 20 years’ experience in Liberia. He agrees the female tappers are more dedicated and easier to work with than their male colleagues, who he says complain more frequently.

Men have always dominated the job market in Liberia, a country of close to 4 million people that has been headed by a woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, since 2005. According to Liberia’s 2010 labor force survey, just 47,000 women are recorded as paid employees nationwide, compared to 148,000 men (many Liberians work in the informal sector). And although International Labor Organization laws, of which Liberia is a signatory, call for equal remuneration for work of equal value done by men and women, female employees are often paid much less.

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A woman begins the rubber-tapping process on a plantation in Grand Bassa, Liberia. (Alpha Daffae Senkpeni)

Yorkor Kollie, another tapper, says she finds it hard to save money each month. She lives alone in a simple room on the plantation, paid for by LAC; her four children don’t live with her, so she sends them money each month.

“Even when you take pay and keep some of the money to save, you have to go back and take it to solve problems,” Kollie says. “I try to keep $30 each month, but the money doesn’t stay with me.” She said there are always last-minute problems to take care of.

In addition, the female tappers say they have concerns about the condition of their housing units on the plantation. Many are over four decades old and poorly maintained. Those women who have large families have had to make partitions using sticks, mats and bamboo to have a little privacy from their children.

And yet, they keep on working. They hope their children will become teachers or nurses – jobs that bring a steady wage without tough, physical labor.

As for Willie, she worries that her eldest son has hearing problems; he dropped out of school after other students bullied him over it. But she can’t afford to send him to see a hearing specialist. Challenged by raising the funds to do so, she says the solution is simply for her to work harder at the rubber plantation.

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