Modern-Day Slavery and the Big Game

After 26 years of chaos and war, Liberia, on the shores of West Africa, is reemerging as a beacon of hope in a difficult region. A peaceful democratic transition ushered in Africa’s first woman president, a successful UN peacekeeping effort, and a wave of repatriates eager to build for the future.

One glaring blemish on this positive picture is the condition of workers engaged with Liberia’s largest employer, Bridgestone Firestone.

The American icon, now a division of a Japanese corporation, is the sponsor of the 2008 and 2009 Super Bowl half-time shows. It also runs the world’s largest rubber operations in Liberia. The country’s fertile soil and stable workforce brought Firestone to Liberia back in 1926. For 82 years, the company has secured a steady flow of rubber from Liberia to the United States through a system based on modern-day slavery.

I visited the plantation in 2005, just after Firestone signed an agreement with the interim government extending its lease until the year 2042. I met an 11-year old boy, Abu, a scrawny yet handsome kid, with long arms, skinny legs, and eyes as bright as a full moon. Abu was working on the Firestone plantation. He had been “helping his dad from before the sun was up.” Abu explained how he started at 4:30 a.m. cleaning the storage cups, applying chemicals and pesticides to trees, and then moving on to collect the white rubber sap streaming down each tree.

Abu poured the cup of rubber sap into a large bucket. Then he hoisted two of these buckets onto a pole to move from tree to tree. When the buckets were full, each weighing 75 pounds, Abu struggled and winced in pain but carried his load a mile up the road to vast storage tanks where the rubber would be poured into tanker trucks and taken to a processing area before shipment to America. Abu shared his dream of one day becoming a doctor. Yet, unable to go to school and used as a beast of burden, that’s quite unlikely. He and countless other children exploited on the Firestone rubber plantation have no way out.

Abu and his family are shackled by a quota system that withholds pay unless a set number of trees are tapped (milked) each day. Firestone says this number is 650 trees, but rubber tappers place the number at 1,100 trees that must be tapped three times each day. According to a CNN report, even at the lower rate of 650 trees, it would take each tapper 21 hours to perform that labor each day. This unbearable quota forces workers to bring their children to work or risk losing the daily meager wage of $3.19.

In November 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund brought a case against Firestone in U.S. Federal court for violations of child labor rights. Now in discovery phase in U.S. District Court in the Southern district of Indiana, the case spotlights Firestone’s modern day slavery and abuse of children’s rights.

Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, strengthened under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has also cited the company for chemicals and other toxic wastes dumped into the riverways adjacent to the plantation. Workers have complained about toxic fumes from ammonium nitrate, formaldehyde, pesticides, and other chemicals, added during the processing of the rubber.

It’s simply un-American for a company that uses child labor and abuses the environment in a war-torn nation to be the official sponsor of the Super Bowl. It’s also a mistake for the NFL to allow Bridgestone Firestone to use the Super Bowl to showcase the brand to more than 1 billion viewers around the world.

The NFL should examine carefully how it anoints official sponsors and set some standards. The visibility of a marquee event like the Super Bowl demands a process that weeds out irresponsible corporations.

Ironically, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, is a Board member of Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes a vision that, “All kids develop the lifelong habits necessary to promote health and learning,” How then could Commissioner Goodell allow sponsorship from a corporation linked to child labor? While it may be late for SuperBowl XLII, Firestone’s deal for next year’s game must be revoked.

Emira Woods is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.