Firestone’s Corporate Spin

I suppose I should thank Dan Adomitis for believing that my concern for workers in Liberia is sincere. However, I don’t believe that Mr. Adomitis holds the moral authority to judge anyone’s concern or, for that matter, their sincerity.

Adomitis writes that my piece contains "a host of unfounded allegations" regarding his company’s alleged practice of child labor and environmental degradation. Far from unfounded allegations, affidavits are readily available from child laborers who toiled on the Firestone plantation. Their heartbreaking testimony has never been disputed. And despite a heavy dose of clever corporate spin, his response challenges absolutely none of the essential points of my piece.

He writes, "Firestone Natural Rubber has a zero-tolerance policy against child labor." No one doubts that this is official policy. The problem is that, according to the affidavits, this policy isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Families are enlisting their spouses and children while the overseers at the plantation look the other way. This has been documented extensively. The affidavits recently filed in the advancing lawsuit detail instances of Firestone managers encouraging workers to bring their children to work and sending them running if cars or photographers approach.

This gap between policy and reality continues as Adomitis writes that "the average work day for a tapper at the Firestone operation is about eight to 10 hours, not the 21 Zirin cites in his opinion piece." Once again, I don’t doubt for a second that this is in the employee handbook. But that doesn’t match the stubborn reality on the ground. Because of the onerous quotas, and the 50% reduction in wages if quotas are not met, an eight to 10 hour work day just doesn’t meet reality. Most work 12 hours, and in the affidavits, there is sworn testimony that even some children work from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.

But it’s on the environment that Adomitis really tips his hand. His letter is simply not a serious refutation but an exercise in PR. Firestone’s wastewater treatment plant comes after 81 years of dumping toxic waste into rivers used by the Liberian people for bathing, fishing and drinking. Now the area around the Farmington River is home to a host of health problems. The meticulously documented truth is that toxic-waste dumping has been regular practice for years. The fact that the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency — a government organization — cited Firestone is particularly damning, given the very sweet relationship between Firestone and the government.

In conclusion, Adomitis writes that "even Firestone Liberia‘s lowest-earning workers receive more than three times the monthly average wage of other Liberian workers. … We believe so strongly that the best place for children is in school that we currently operate 23 schools." Notice Adomitis ducks the fact that if quotas aren’t met, that wage advantage goes down the tubes. Also, according to the ILRF, "only people born on the plantation grounds are eligible [to attend these schools]. To prove eligibility, one must produce a birth certificate that can only be produced with exorbitant fees also charged by the plantation."

At long last, either child labor is used or it is not. This is not officially denied once. There is a reason for this. We should take moment to think about it during this Sunday’s halftime show.

Dave Zirin is the author of the new book "Welcome to the Terrordome:" with an intro by Chuck D (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by emailing [email protected] Contact him at [email protected]

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