Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire, the world’s largest seller of tires, is spending more than $10 million as “official tire sponsor” of the Super Bowl halftime show in Phoenix, to be broadcast on Fox this Sunday–and will likely spend that much and more to sponsor the event in 2009. But the entertainment and advertising images beamed into American living rooms during the most-watched sporting event of the year stand in sharp contrast to the harsh working conditions, child labor and exposure to toxic chemicals at the company’s rubber plantations in Liberia.
While Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at halftime and fitness enthusiast Richard Simmons cavorts in the company’s commercials aired during the game, Americans should be aware that there’s more going on here than just selling tires. The company is using the Super Bowl as a public relations platform to cleanse its image as it faces a class-action lawsuit in US District Court in Indiana, filed by the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy organization. The ILRF and several plaintiffs accuse the company of committing human rights abuses for its use of child labor in Liberia.
In exchange for $3.19 in daily wages, FirestoneNatural Rubber Company, a Bridgestone subsidiary, expects a typical Liberian worker to tap 650 trees a day, carrying seventy-pound buckets of latex for miles. A single laborer would have to work twenty-one hours per day to meet this quota, a near-impossible task. Which is why Firestone gives workers an extra incentive: tap 650 trees per day or see their daily wages slashed in half.
In a country whose economy has been ravaged by fourteen years of civil war, Firestone’s employees don’t have a choice but to comply. With Liberia’s 85 percent unemployment rate, there will always be someone desperate enough to take their place.
The 650-tree daily quota policy has led many of Firestone’s more than 4,000 employees to enlist their children and wives as workers to ensure that they meet their target. But these extra workers aren’t paid any extra. And the children whose families depend on their labor for survival never have the opportunity to go to school.
A 2006 report by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) found that during Liberia’s civil war, Firestone’s Duside Hospital, in the city of Harbel, didn’t issue birth certificates. Yet free education and healthcare for workers’ children depends on having one. Liberia’s Ministry of Health will provide a birth certificate for $25, an exorbitant fee considering it’s almost half of an employee’s monthly salary.
Firestone, which is owned by Bridgestone, a Japanese company, but has headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, also has been accused by the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency of dumping toxic waste into the river that feeds into the community’s water supply. The workers, including children, are also exposed to harmful chemicals and pesticides in the production of rubber, which is hazardous to their health. But since the medical services Firestone offers are not accessible to those without birth certificates and clinic hours are limited, employees often do not receive the medical attention they need.