A federal government agency and an international labor advocacy group are accusing Bridgestone/Firestone in separate lawsuits of unfair labor practices-charges the tire maker vehemently denies.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against BFS in Chicago federal district court in September, alleging the company condoned flagrant discrimination against African-American and Hispanic employees at its Woodridge, Ill., plant.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 17, the International Labor Rights Fund sued BFS in Los Angeles federal district court, accusing the company of following labor practices at its Harbel, Liberia, plantation that amount to slave labor, including forcing small children to work long hours tapping rubber trees.
The EEOC case is based on the complaints of two African-American employees, Michael White and Burt Barton. They claim the company allowed employees to insult them and other black and Hispanic employees, cover the walls with racial epithets and hang Confederate flags inside the plant. When Barton complained, the suit alleges, BFS fired him.
The suit seeks back pay and non-pecuniary compensation for the Woodridge workers, as well as specific relief including back pay with interest for Barton.
BFS filed a document with the Chicago court denying the EEOC charges categorically, and the company has said it will fight those allegations vigorously. The court held its first status hearing on the EEOC case Dec. 7.
In the other case, the labor fund accuses BFS of paying its Liberian workers near-starvation wages-$3.19 per day before deductions-and docking them 50 percent if they don't meet a tapping quota of 1,125 trees per day.
To meet this quota, the suit alleges, tappers must bring their children into the field to work 12-14 hours a day. The workers must apply pesticides and fertilizer by hand without protective clothing of any kind, it claims.
The suit names as plaintiffs 12 adults and 23 children living on the plantation. Pseudonyms were used because, the labor fund said, the plaintiffs would be fired and expelled from the plantation if BFS knew who they were.
``The plantation workers are stripped of rights, they are isolated, they are at the mercy of Firestone for everything from food to lodging, they risk expulsion and certain starvation if they raise even minor complaints,'' the suit states. ``The Firestone plantation is a testament to the dark side of humanity.''
Although the company hasn't yet had a chance to respond in court to the labor fund suit, it issued a public statement denying the charges in no uncertain terms.
``The allegations by this group are outrageous and are simply not supported by the facts,'' BFS said. ``This has more to do with generating headlines than with seeking justice.''
BFS countered the labor fund's allegations point-by-point. It said that the company's Liberian workers are among the highest-paid in the country; that they are represented by a union; that the plantation has no employees under 18; and that BFS has more than 7,000 children enrolled in the 20 schools it operates in Liberia.
Terry Collingsworth, a Washington attorney for the labor fund, said the allegations came from his firsthand witnessing of conditions on the BFS plantation. Court dates have not been set for the case.