This Halftime Show is Brought to You by Child Labor in Africa
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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 U.S. 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, Firestone Natural Rubber Co., a Bridgestone subsidiary, expects a typical Liberian worker to tap 650 trees a day, carrying 70-pound buckets of latex for miles. A single laborer would have to work 21 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 14 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, Tenn., 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.
Meanwhile, Firestone employs thousands more contractors who are not considered employees and therefore are not entitled to the company's free education and healthcare benefits for themselves or their children.
Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., blames not only Bridgestone Firestone but the National Football League for giving the company the platform of a pinnacle event in American sports from which to reach the hearts and pocketbooks of the American people. "It is irresponsible for the NFL to use their marquee event to create a showcase for a company that for 82 years has exploited the people of Liberia," she said. "Bridgestone Firestone has based their profits on child labor and the destruction of the environment. They should be reprimanded, not elevated."
But Peter Murray, the NFL's senior vice president of partnership marketing and sales, disagrees. In a statement, Murray said he's "pleased" with the company's sponsorship of the halftime show and involvement in the NFL Experience and Pro Bowl events. "By teaming with a global leader like Bridgestone, we can make America's favorite event even more powerful."
What Murray and many Americans might not know is that this "global leader" won the "Public Eye Global Award" in 2007 for worst global corporation for its use of child labor and abuse of the environment. The award was given by Pro Natura, the Swiss branch of Friends of the Earth and another Swiss group, the Berne Declaration, at a ceremony that coincided with last year's World Economic Forum in Davos.
Yet to say that Murray was unaware of the abuses committed by Bridgestone Firestone would be inaccurate. In fact, Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, sent Murray a letter in October outlining the company's practices. Murray responded in a letter to Athreya that Bridgestone "assured" the NFL "that it remains committed to improving the lives of its workers and their communities in Liberia."
But if Bridgestone Firestone is so committed to improving the lives of Liberian workers, why did it take three strikes over the course of 11 months, new elections for union leaders and pressure from African and U.S. organizations like the United Steelworkers for the company to make changes? Even after workers held the first free election in the plantation's history, Firestone refused to negotiate with the union until Liberia's Supreme Court ruled Dec. 21 that the elections were legitimate.
Instead of using Super Bowl marketing tactics to clean up its image, Woods, of the Institute for Policy Studies, said that Bridgestone Firestone could be doing the right thing on the ground in Liberia: "Cleaning up the riverways from toxic-waste dumping, paying adequate wages, removing the quota system -- all of these things can be done for a whole lot less than the millions they're spending on the halftime show."
For more information on the advocacy campaign for Bridgestone Firestone workers in Liberia, go to www.stopfirestone.org.
Ruthie Ackerman, a reporter based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is writing a book about the legacy of U.S. colonial ties with Liberia. Her work in Liberia was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.