By Atty Philip N. Wesseh (PNW)
Two of the popular idioms in this country are, “Patient Dog Eats The fattest Bone,“ while the other is, “hurry, hurry burst trousers,” which can be simply interpreted as one who exercises endurance or one who exercises prudence in doing certain things always achieve the desired result. Furthermore, it can also be interpreted to mean that in a conflict situation, it is necessary to exercise patience, that is, not insisting on immediate results, but accepting additional time to achieve a particular goal. Also, it suggests that in certain situations, one should learn to follow certain steps and procedures, as contrary to that could undermine the attainment of an expected result or goal.
I cite these idioms in Liberia because it seemingly fits the situation of former employees of the Decoris Palm Plantation in Maryland Country, who for over two decades have by been living by these maxims to be able to get their over US473,000,000 severance pay due them (280 former employees). While others in such a frustrating situation would resort to violence in as a panacea to achieving their goals, as we have seen in this country this group of nearly five hundred former employees of this plantation continue to exercise patience, restrains and have not rushed in their negotiations or interactions with various government ministries and agencies concerned to engage in any act detrimental to the society.
“Severance pay” by Labor Law and definition, refers to money (apart from back wages or salary) paid by an employer to a dismissed employee. Such a payment is often made in exchange for a release of any claims that the employee might have against the employer. It is also defined as“ money paid to employees who have been dismissed (generally through no fault of their own) to compensate for the time they are not going work because of the job loss.
Frankly, it is unprecedented to see people exercising such patience and restraints for nearly 25 years without the desired result, but continue to persevere, hoping that one day, they would “eat the fattest bone.” But the million dollar question is: when will these citizens of Liberia and former workers of Decoris eat this wonderful “fattest bone? ”Others who find themselves in this similar squabble, laughed at the end of the day. When will these group of citizens laugh too? Even those who were in the army, referred to as 540, after the civil war, received their little thing; then what is the problem with this group of former Decoris former employees?
Another important example is those with the former Bong Mining Company who also got what was due them, when now Senator Varney Sherman and others represented them. If there is anything due them, then, it is with their government because I was told that some savings for them had been used by government, not necessarily this government, but as we know, government is government. But what changes is the administration or administrators.
The history of The claim for Severance Pay
For the sake of history, let me begin by saying that these former employees of Decoris Oil Palm Company served in various capacities and for varying number of years. Since September 4, 1990, over 25 of those employees have died and the majority of those living have no means of sustaining themselves because they are unemployed. It can be recalled that the Government of Liberia entered into an agreement with SIFCA and transferred the management of the Decoris Oil Palm Plantation to SIFCA. The norms of giving first opportunity of employment to former employees of the same plantation was not respected, leaving most of the former employees unemployed to this date.
Since then, the former employees have been engaging the Liberian government for payment of their severance pay, but to no avail. They have written several communications with concerned government institutions and county leadership, yet, they have not got any favorable response. It is based on this that the former employees of Decoris Oil Palm Company residing in Maryland County wrote a letter to the then Superintendent of Maryland County, Mr. J. Gbleboh Brown (now senator of the county), requesting for severance pay from the Government of Liberia. The then Superintendent promised to follow up on the request of the former employees.
Still exercising patience, the former employees on January 31, 2011 sent a formal request to the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Agriculture for the settlement of claims of the former employees of the Decoris Oil Palm Company for services rendered said project during 1980 to 1990. The claim package included a covering letter addressed to the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, a summarized historical fact sheet on the Decoris Oil Palm Project, and a severance payroll for the 280 former employees.
According to information, when the former employees followed up their communication in July 2012, they were informed that their claim package had not been received by the Minister of Agriculture. Based on that, the former employees, not wavering about that, on August 1, 2012 filed another claim package with the Minister of Agriculture with copies to the National Investment Commission.
The package included: a covering letter addressed to the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, under the signature of former General Manager, Mr. R. Francis T. Karpeh, Jr; Historical information on the Decoris Oil Palm Project, including justification for the claims, signed by the former management officers of the project (General Manager, Financial Controller, Mechanical Engineer, Estate Manager, and Legal Advisor/Industrial Relations Officer); a payroll detailing the claims of the former employees. Also, a copy of the claims package was filed with the National Investment Commission received by the Commission’s Executive Director, Madam Ciata Bishop.
Records show that on August 17, 2012 the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Florence Chenoweth forwarded the claims of former employees of Decoris Oil Palm Company to the Minister of Finance, the Honorable Amara Konneh in a letter to the minister (RL/MOA/FAC/663/12). The Minister of Agriculture, in that letter, disclosed that “the concession agreement for Maryland Oil Palm Plantation owned by SIFCA Group which took ownership of Decoris states on page 16, Section 5.1 that Government is responsible for liabilities.” (See Exhibit One).
Following the Agriculture Minister’s submission of the letter to the Finance Minister, the former employees on December, 2012, followed up with the Agriculture Ministry, but were told that the Ministry has played its role. With the help of a son of the county, a delegation of the former employees was privileged to hold a brief meeting with the Minister of Finance, Amara Konneh, in his office in mid-December, during which time the Minister reportedly informed them that the forwarded letter from the Minister of Agriculture had not been received by him. The former employees then provided him photocopies of the entire set of claimed documents for his perusal. The information said that the Minister of Finance then promised to review the documents and would revert in one week. Since then, no action has been taken by the Minister.
Six months later on June 20, 2013, the former employees did a follow up letter to the Minister of Finance, reminding the Minister of Finance of their pending discussion concerning their claims for severance pay. That letter was filed on the 10th floor of the Ministry, where letters are registered and processed through the system for appointments to be made for a meeting with the Minister. (See Exhibit Two).
Dishearteningly, over two years ago, nothing has been heard from the Liberian Government on the plight of these Liberians for money they deserve for their hard labor. Dishearteningly, these workers continue to make frantic efforts for their just pay. Is it because they have not resorted to violence acts or block the President’s convoy that the government is not taking their matter seriously. I recall how wives of former AFL soldiers blocked streets and they were given attention. Additionally, I recall on many occasions how they carried out similar action, and a bank was forced to open on a Sunday, something unusual to cater to those former AFL soldiers’ wives. Is it how these former workers should behave before attention would be given them?
For me, I appreciate the behavior of the former employees for pursuing the peaceful path, but it seems that this government believes putting off fire for fire, or the popular saying that if one does not put fire on turtle’s back, it will not move. Today, one of the things we can brag about is the peace that we enjoy and so nothing should be done to jeopardize this hard-earned peace. This is why the Liberian government including officials of the county, as most of the former employees are Marylanders, to seriously look into this matter.
One of the good things about this is that many of those who have knowledge about this are still alive and working in the government. As such, it is easy to get any necessary information on this matter that has unprecedentedly or unbelievably been fragging on for years.
What really encourages me to comment on this issue was a response to a question as to why they cannot get politicians from their county involved in this matter; a leader of the group said, “we do not want anyone to exploit this for political gain; these leaders are aware and have not done anything concrete to help us for all of these nearly 30 years. We do not have to go to them because they know the story.”
Once more, I support the peaceful path being pursued by the former Decoris employees, but this should not be seen as weakness. As such, the government should look into their plight. This is a legitimate claim and not something they are not entitled to.
Government should not act only when the situation is pursued in a violent or lawless manner, but should also act when it is also being pursued in a peaceful manner like in the case of the former DECORIS workers. A hint to the wise is quiet sufficient! The former employees have waited too long patiently and it is time for them to eat the “fattest bone now.” I Rest My Case.