- The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has tried to put an end to a labour conflict with its local Liberian workers by bribing the workers' lawyer, according to NRC itself. The Liberian lawyer is "outraged" by the Council's "confession" and says he now definitively will bring the workers' case to court.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is one of the world's leading non-governmental organisations working with refugees and internally displaced people. In Liberia, the NRC led the disarming and demobilisation process in the western town Tubmanburg with a Liberian workforce of more than 100 employees.
The disarmament project in Tubmansburg in the middle of July came to a sudden end as the NRC saw its mission completed. The local workforce, however, claims to have been victim to several contract breaks, including below contract payments, non-paid extra hours and a too short notice of disengagement.
According to the workers' spokespersons, Prince Nipeh, the NRC owns them at least US$ 30,000 in total. They engaged a Liberian lawyer, Powo Hilton, with an aim of having the NRC to settle accounts. Last week, however, the case was suddenly laid dead.
The case was rolled up by the Liberian daily 'The News' and researched further by NorWatch, an Oslo-based organisations "mapping Norwegian businesses in low cost countries." NorWatch editor David Stenerud last week contacted NRC Director Leif Søfting at the demobilisation camp in Liberia, who proved helpful in explaining why there were no developments in the workers' case.
The NRC Director said the Council was to contribute with "a symbolic amount of money to come to an end with this case." The amount, US$ 200, was to "cover the lawyer fees so that this lawyer ends the case." The "symbolic amount" was to be paid to Mr Hilton, the workers' lawyer, not to the workers, Mr Søfting confirmed.
- The problem is that lawyers in Liberia have so little to do that they take on all kinds of strange cases, hoping that they will earn a little, Mr Søfting told NorWatch. He felt no need to compensate the Tubmanburg workforce as their claim was "not realistic".
As 'The News' followed up the case and printed Mr Søfting's shocking statements to NorWatch in the daily newspaper, lawyer Hilton finally chose to comment on the story. "This is definitely not true and I am shocked by the statements of the NRC," Mr Hilton told NorWatch editor Stenerud.
- Taking money to put this case aside in not an issue here, Mr Hilton adds, saying he has neither received nor been promised anything from the NRC. "I am working for the interests of my clients and they have genuine demands that will be proven in court," the lawyer says, adding that he has enough documentation to convince a Liberian court of the workers' claim. As a compromise now seems out of the question, Mr Hilton is set to bring the case to court.
Also Mr Nipeh, the workers' spokesman, reacts with outrage to the statements by NRC Director Søfting and meets them with disbelief. "Maybe it's a way of trying to get away from the focus by Norwegian media," Mr Nipeh speculates over the motives driving Mr Søfting to make such a statement.
According to Mr Nipeh, the NRC is responsible for a long list of contract breaches. First and foremost, the workers got only one week's verbal notice, instead of one month's written notice as they claim to be entitled to. Therefore, the workers hold, they are entitled to one month's extra salary.
Further, Mr Nipeh claims, the workforce was only paid US$ 217 per month while they had been promised US$ 275 in the contract. Finally, they claim to have been held at work from seven morning until seven at night, including Sundays and public holidays, with no overtime pay.
NRC programme coordinator Gro Anett Nicolaysen in late July told NorWatch that none of the workers' claims were based on facts. "It's word against word, but our lawyer down there has went through everything and found nothing wrong," Ms Nicolaysen claims. NRC claims to have acted in line with Liberian labour standards.
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