The Super Bowl championship of US professional football is America's most watched annual television event. The commercials, which showcase the latest consumer goods, cost millions of dollars for even a 30-second ad to reach around 100 million viewers. For the past two years, Firestone, the largest rubber plantation operator in Liberia, has paid premium prices to promote its Bridgestone tire line during the popular Super Bowl halftime show. This has prompted an email action campaign by the international labor rights forum to raise corporate and public awareness about inferior living and working conditions faced by Liberian plantation rubber workers. The campaign's Tim Newman explains what was being done this year in anticipation of last night's halftime telecast, that featured entertainment by rock sensation Bruce Springsteen, to get Firestone to raise its commitments to help its African laborers.
"We are using this as an opportunity to call attention to the ongoing abuses in Liberia by trying to get the word out to the media and also encouraging people to communicate with the NFL (the National Football League) as well as Bridgestone that they should improve conditions in Liberia," he said.
Since the 1920's when Firestone set up its plant, the primary job for workers has been collecting rubber from trees, putting it in buckets that weigh 75 pounds, carrying two buckets on a stick on their backs for about a mile. Workers have a daily quota, which requires them to work for more than 20 hours a day. As a result, Newman says they frequently have to bring in their children or their wives or hire sub-contractors out of their $3-a-day wages in order to meet that quota so that they can be paid. Newman notes that the working and living conditions they endure are substandard.
"It's physically demanding. They aren't given much safety equipment. There are a lot of injuries that are caused. And workers also live in shacks. A lot of them haven't been updated since the 1920's, when Firestone first came to Liberia, and they don't have running water or indoor toilets or electricity," he pointed out.
For the past two years, the Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Forum has been waging an internet and media crusade, coordinated with a letter writing campaign to raise the consciousness of NFL, television network, and advertising executives who Newman speculates have lacked the sensitivity to press Firestone to improve conditions. He says the campaign is beginning to pay off.
"We did get quite a bit of publicity and also worked with a sports journalist who did an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times. And there were actually several back-and-forth letters between him and the CEO of Firestone Natural Rubber Company that got a lot of attention. We also generated hundreds of email letters to Firestone from people around the world and since the Super Bowl last year, workers on the plantation have an independent and democratically elected union. And they've signed their first historic contract in August of 2008. So this year, we're really focusing on insuring that Firestone actually implements the terms of that contract," he said.
Although the new contract eliminates the burdensome worker quota, Newman notes that in practice, this demand for extra worker productivity has not been curtailed. However, he says children of the plantation workers have been provided transportation to schools and are receiving an education. And a new health committee is being set up to ensure that families get care that conforms to new health and safety standards. On the other hand, the labor campaign worker says that football officials continue to follow the corporate line of their sponsors and have not been willing to engage in talks with labor officials.
"This is the second year that we've had people all around the world emailing them, saying that they need to pay attention to this. And unfortunately, they have not stepped up to their responsibility," he said.
In contrast, Newman praises Liberian officials who he says are working to obtain better benefits for the workers.
"The labor minister of Liberia, Kofi Woods, has been extremely supportive of the workers on the Firestone plantation. And he made sure that the elections that were held for the union were independently verified and that there were international observers. So he's done a lot of work to make sure that there are good industrial relations on the plantation. And (Liberian President) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made some statements in support of the workers. And the workers have given her praise at certain points throughout the campaign. But I think that it's hard for the Liberian government to really be able to stand up for the workers because Firestone is the largest employer and the largest private investor in Liberia," he noted.
Still, his assessment of this year's February 1 contest and the campaign that went along with it is upbeat.
"It's really hard to push the NFL, but
I think we really have raised their awareness about this issue. This is something that was really not on
their radar two years ago when they signed this (commercial sponsorship)
contract, and I think that's what this media pressure and people calling them
up and sending them emails – it definitely shows them that they need to
consider this if they are going to renegotiate a contract with Bridgestone or
any other company," he declared.