Nearly 100 million football fans across the country will be tuning in to watch Bruce Springsteen belt out his trademark songs celebrating America’s workers during halftime at the Super Bowl this evening. They also will see two new 30-second commercials—estimated to cost at least $3 million each—from Bridgestone Firestone, the world’s largest tire company and the halftime sponsor.
But none of the viewers will see Austin Natee and his fellow workers. Natee is president of the union that represents the thousands of Liberian rubber workers who earn $3 on a good day, but whose hard labor creates the profits that Bridgestone Firestone uses to pay for the halftime spectacular.
When he was in Washington, D.C., last year to accept the 2007 Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of the rubber workers, Natee explained how Bridgestone Firestone continually exploits workers and pollutes the environment. Saying the workers live in modern-day slavery, he explained that rubber tappers work 14 hours a day and must tap 750 rubber trees and accumulate 150 pounds of latex daily—all for little more than $3 a day and a monthly 100-pound bag of subsidized rice if quotas are met.
Tappers walk for miles with more than 140 pounds of rubber in metal buckets on their backs, Natee says, and the company fails to provide them with basic safety equipment such as goggles to prevent the latex from dripping into their eyes and blinding them.
Concerned sports fans can click here to send an e-mail to National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell and Bridgestone Americas CEO Mark Emkes urging justice for the Liberian rubber workers.
Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, says for less than the cost of a Super Bowl sponsorship, Bridgestone Firestone could make a difference in its workers’ lives.
"Bridgestone Firestone spends millions to sponsor the Super Bowl, yet a small fraction of that amount could alleviate the heavy burden of exploitation of workers and the environment in Liberia. After three years of pressure from the workers, the adjacent community, and government officials, it is past time for Firestone to do the right thing. The NFL has a responsibility to sports fans across the country to not mire its marquee event with endorsers like Firestone that also sponsor labor and environmental abuse around the world."
Since 1926, Bridgestone Firestone has operated the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia, with widespread child labor, abuse of workers’ rights and environmental damage, according to activists with the Stop Firestone Coalition. Representatives of the United Steelworkers (USW) and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center found horrid living conditions on the plantation.
The USW, which represents Bridgestone Firestone workers in the United States, has supported the Liberian workers for the past two years through training programs, workshops and education in partnership with the Solidarity Center.
After a long struggle, workers finally held the first free and fair union election and signed their first contract negotiated by an independent union leadership in August 2008. The agreement was a major step forward in the long struggle of workers to protect their rights.
But Firestone has failed to implement many of the important improvements in the new contract. For example, the new contract reduced the size of the production quota, but many workers report that they are still being forced to produce at the old quota level, which means they must hire subcontractors or use the labor of their family members in order to finish their work and be paid.
Firestone also has not fully implemented health and safety improvements in the new contract and has not provided transportation. The new contract also mandated improved conditions for children, including transportation to school; yet Firestone has neglected these provisions almost entirely.
Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said, “Bridgestone Firestone needs to stop playing games with workers and their families in Liberia.”
"The halftime show sponsor should immediately honor its commitments in the historic contract signed with the workers in Liberia, and the NFL should refuse to renew any contracts with Bridgestone until they can play fair in Liberia."
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