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Kribi Police Detain 78 Striking Workers 

By Divine Ntaryike Jr

( — Gun-toting police officers late Monday pounced on striking workers of the natural rubber producing company, HEVECAM, apprehending and quarantining 78 of them. The arrests, ordered by the prefect of the Ocean division were designed to punctuate a worsening sit-in strike embarked upon by the grumbling workers since early January.

Some 6,000 workers downed their tools on January 2 to demand immediate payments of accumulated dues following the privatization of the company otherwise called Hevea du Cameroun.  They say they have also been demanding a pay rise since several years to no avail.

All our attempts at procuring an explanation from the company management early Tuesday ended in futility.  “I am not qualified to speak on behalf of management.  Please call the general manager himself and stop trying to get me into trouble,” a female voice advised on the phone.

Amid threats of street demonstrations following the rigid poise of management, massively deployed security officers clamped down on the grumbling workers on the sixth day of their venture.   Prior to arrests Monday, HEVECAM plantations had been besieged since Friday by soldiers, gendarmes and police reinforcements sent in from the South regional capital, Ebolowa.

The arrests Monday have met with increasing condemnation from local civil society actors and political leaders.  Gregoire Mba Mba, a CPDM section president lambasted the divisional officer for choosing to tyrannize the pacific demonstrators.  According to him, negotiations and not oppression would calm the flaring tempers of the striking workers.

Early Tuesday, the thousands of striking workers sought refuge at the precincts of the Kribi town hall.  “We shall not give up.  In fact the arrests have only come to galvanize our position.  We shall not go back to work until they pay our dues and also increase our salaries.  How do you work for 30 years and still earn 50,000?” Charles Ndasi, one of the protesters demanded.

HEVECAM was privatized in 1996 following a recommendation from the World Bank.  The new investors from Singaporean giants, GMG International, agreed to cede 3 percent of the company’s annual proceeds to workers.  But the irate staffers claim they have not been paid a dime of that money in sixteen years. 

HEVECAM exploits some 20,000 hectares on a concession of 40,000 hectares.  A standing agreement indicates the company has concession rights over the parcel of land for a period of 50 years renewable once.

At the turn of the century, Cameroon’s natural rubber production showed signs of recovery with 60,000 tons in 2006.  In 2009 however, production stood at 52,497 tons.  The global economic crunch caused a 1.8% drop in demand compared to 2008. Economists blamed declines in the demand for tires worldwide. 

Despite this decline in production, which has fallen by more than 10,000 tons in recent years, the rubber is an essential part of the Cameroonian economy, with nearly 30,000 jobs and export earnings of about 20 billion FCFA per year.  But observers are warning that poor working and plantation living conditions as witnessed at HEVECAM could lead to worker discontent and further production slumps.

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