from International Labor Rights Forum

After twenty-six 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 brought 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, sponsor of the 2008 Super Bowl half-time show, 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 4:30am 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 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 his carried 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 beasts of burden, he and countless other children 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, rubber tappers place the number at 1100 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, t he 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. The neighboring Farmington River, once teeming with marine life, is virtually dead after decades in which untreated wastes flowed from Firestone’s processing plant. The Owens Grove community adjacent to the plantation has raised complaints of high rates of skin and respiratory ailments. Henry Bweh, Chair of the concerned citizens of Owens Grove said, “Firestone continues to ignore the pleas of the community that lives behind this factory and depends on the river for survival.”

In January 2007 Firestone won the distinction of receiving the “Public Eye” award given by global environmentalists and non-governmental organizations to the most irresponsible corporation in the world. Granting the award in Davos, Switzerland, environmentalists spotlighted, “conditions approaching slavery have prevailed on its rubber plantation in Liberia (West Africa) for 80 years. Child labor and ecodisasters are the order of the day. “

How ironic then that a company with child labor and environmental complaints becomes the official sponsor of the 2008 Super Bowl half-time event, showcasing the brand to over 1 billion viewers around the world.

Eight years into this new century, Africa’s first woman president and the people of Liberia need international investors that are held accountable.

Sponsorship of such the pinnacle American sporting event needs also a higher level of scrutiny and accountability.The NFL should examine carefully how it anoints official sponsors. The visibility of a marquee event like the Super Bowl demands a process that vets 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.

The Liberian government must also to its part to demand protection of children and the environment; international standards for its workers; and fair trade with adequate fees and taxation for Liberia’s extractive industries.

Consumers too have a role to play. Citizens can urge their lawmakers to withhold U.S. taxpayer funds from corporations that do not uphold international labor and environmental standards. More importantly, the day-to day purchasing power of individuals, city councils, and school districts must be informed by a core set of values protecting children and the environment.

After all, beyond the Super Bowl, the world is watching.

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