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Child Labor Behind Firestone Tires

by Tim Newman

As people around the world commemorate World Day Against Child Labor on June 12, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company recognized the day by continuing its 81-year tradition of exploiting workers in Liberia.

Firestone has been operating a rubber plantation in Harbel, Liberia since 1926 where workers wake up early every morning to tap rubber trees in order to meet an unreasonably high production quota. By Firestone Natural Rubber CEO Dan Adomitis' own admission on CNN, it would take a tapper over 21 hours every day to meet their quota, which is why workers are forced to bring their children and wives to work or their already low salaries will be halved. As part of the outdated production system, children carry heavy loads, come into close contact with toxic pesticides and often work for 12 hours a day.

Workers live in shacks, most of which have not been renovated since the 1920s, without any running water, indoor latrines or electricity while managers live on huge land plots with all the modern amenities — including golf courses! As recently confirmed by the Liberian EPA, the company dumps toxic chemicals directly into the Farmington River which is used by the local community for fishing and bathing. As a result of the modern day slavery conditions facing workers, the company has been sued in US courts and was also bestowed with the Public Eye Award for Worst Global Corporation this past January.

In order to stand up for their internationally recognized rights, workers have been organizing to hold new union elections at the end of June so that they can finally be represented by a truly independent and democratic body. When the company management attempted to use legal roadblocks to stop the elections, the workers went on strike in the end of April. On Friday, April 27, police forces were brought in and workers were brutally attacked. Police officials fired tear gas into crowded settlements filled with children, women, the elderly and Firestone workers alike. Six workers were seriously injured and roughly 13 were arrested. The attack on workers' right to organize raises serious concerns about the neutrality of upcoming union elections.

Negotiations are also currently taking place between Firestone and the government over the terms of the concession area which Firestone controls. The previous concession agreement was signed under a transitional government and heavily favored Firestone. Now that Liberia has a democratic government — and the first woman leader in Africa — there is hope that the new concession agreement will produce greater benefits for the population that produces such immense wealth for Firestone. Unfortunately, reports from the negotiations raise serious concerns about whether or not Firestone is negotiating with the government in good faith.

US consumers should be shocked that the ubiquitous Firestone tires are produced under these exploitative labor conditions. Imagine children as young as 10 years old forced to carry 70 pounds barrels of latex, coming into direct contact with toxic pesticides. The situation on Firestone's rubber plantation is completely unacceptable under all international legal and moral standards. It is up to consumers to demand that Firestone advance workers' rights this World Day Against Child Labor instead of rolling them back.

With the concession agreement negotiations taking place and new union elections approaching quickly, the next few weeks present an historic opportunity for the people of Liberia to hold Firestone accountable. More broadly, Firestone in LiberiaLiberia and exert their power over post-conflict countries during any negotiations. Here in the US, we need to send a strong message that companies like Firestone cannot violate human rights with impunity. That is why the Stop Firestone Coalition is currently planning actions leading up to July 26, Liberia's Independence Day. We invite readers to join us in these and the many other actions we have planned. Visit the Stop Firestone website and tell Firestone: 80 years of exploitation are enough!

Tim Newman is a Campaigns Assistant at the International Labor Rights Forum, a member of the Stop Firestone Coalition. For more information on the Stop Firestone campaign, please visit the website at http://www.stopfirestone.org. For more information on child labor in other industries, please visit http://www.laborrights.org. He can be reached at tim.newman [at] ilrf.org.

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