Tim Newman, Campaigns Assistant, International Labor Rights Forum
As I mentioned recently on this blog, I just took a trip to Liberia to visit the Firestone rubber plantation and meet with workers there. During my visit, I could see right through all the expensive public relations materials Firestone has produced to try to deflect criticism of their 82 year history of exploitation in Liberia. Most notably, I saw children under the age of 18 working on their plantation with my own eyes -- a flagrant violation of their company policy.
Since the international campaign to stop Firestone's abusive of workers on their rubber plantation in Liberia began several years ago, Firestone has claimed that they do not hire children under the age of 18. Meanwhile, they impose an unreasonably high production quota on workers which in order to be met requires them to bring their children and wives to work with them. If they do not meet their quota, their low wages are halved. If they do not receive their full wages, they will struggle to provide food for their families and many of the workers I spoke to told me that they have very little access to food already. Since the children are not formal employees, Firestone is able to use word play to make it seem like their policies don't directly cause child labor, but a quick visit to their plantation makes the true picture quite clear.
During my visit last month, I saw children working on the Firestone plantation. Just like the adult workers, they were carrying two buckets filled with liquid latex, weighing 75 pounds each, on a stick on their shoulders. After collecting the latex in the buckets, they have to carry the 150 pound load for about 30 minutes to reach a collection station. Imagine the incredible physical strain this kind of work would have on anyone, let alone a child.
In 2005, International Rights Advocates filed a lawsuit against Firestone in U.S. courts on behalf of current and former child laborers in Liberia. In June of 2007, the judge in the lawsuit in Indianapolis ruled that the charges related to child labor could move forward, but that the charges related to adult workers would be dropped. Firestone's public relations materials focus heavily on the dropped charges to make it seem like they are off the hook, but let's not forget that the child labor charges are actually moving forward.
Firestone also says that they have a policy where if they catch a worker bringing their child to work, that worker will be fired. This policy is incredibly unfair because it punishes the worker who is forced to bring their child to work because of the company's quota system. It is the company's quota policy which is to blame for child labor and not the individual workers. Additionally, in affidavits which were recently collected in connection with the lawsuit, child laborers say that company managers specifically told them to continue to come to work and that if they heard cars approaching or saw people taking photographs, they should run away. You can read the affidavits here.
They have also hired an expensive DC-based public relations firm, called Public Strategies, Inc. to try to deflect attention from the shocking working and living conditions on their plantation. It's a shame that the company is spending so much money on public relations and sports endorsements when the best public relations plan would be to actually improve conditions on the ground.
People in the U.S. can express their concern about Firestone's abuses in Liberia by visiting the Stop Firestone campaign website at www.StopFirestone.org. Sign up for updates here. Soon the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia will enter into negotiations with company management over a new collective bargaining agreement and our solidarity will be need to ensure that Firestone respects workers' demands to improve conditions on the plantation -- so stay tuned for new ways to take action!