Firestone crushes Christchurch workers

Literally and figuratively

- Pete Lusk


How heartless can a company get? An illustration of the depths of disregard for human life by a transnational corporation occurred recently at the Firestone tyre factory in Christchurch. Workers attending the funeral of a work-mate killed on the job were called back to work by the boss before his body was put in the ground. In February 2001, Adam Hopkins was crushed in a machine that generates hot strips of rubber at the start of the production line. He was working a 12 hour shift with a workmate who had not been properly trained. When the machine jammed, Adam reached underneath to clear a blockage and became stuck. His mate pushed the emergency button, but in this case it was the wrong thing to do. A section of the machine closed on Adam, meaning he could not breathe. Other workers rushed to help, but there was no way to reverse the machine, and essential safety equipment was missing. By the time they found gas-cutting gear, Adam was dead. The union called in the government safety inspector because the machine had long been unsafe. But even after the company claimed to have repaired it, the emergency button still failed to work. So workers refused to use it.

Management made no apology to Adam’s family for his avoidable death. Their only concern was to get the factory running again. Three hours before Adam’s funeral, the union delegate received a notice from the company. It was slipped under his door at home and threatened the workers would be sued for loss of production if they were not on the job by midday. After the first part of the funeral ceremony, but before Adam’s body went in the grave, the delegate called the 60 workers together and told them of the boss’s demand. Fearful of the consequences, they all returned to work including two who were pallbearers.

The manager of the plant was interviewed in a TV3 20/20 documentary on the tragedy. He said the men had to return or the loss of production could mean the factory closing down. Firestone must remain competitive, he explained. The company banned Adam’s workmate of the fateful night from speaking to the media, but he got around the ban by relaying what he wanted to say through his wife. And workers smuggled a video camera into the plant to get footage for the documentary. So the company did not get it all its own way.

But the fact that the tyre workers did return to work illustrates the weak state of the labour movement in New Zealand, where tariff cuts have savaged manufacturing. In earlier times, things were different. For example, when a coal miner was killed, everyone walked off the job immediately, plus took a full day off for the funeral. This was not just a mark of respect for a dead worker – it was also one of the few ways to make the mine owners pay. This is a working class tradition we need to re-establish at a global level.

The union (Firestone Employees Society Inc.) was contacted by Watchdog for this article. A spokesperson said that, with the benefit of hindsight, they should not have abandoned Adam’s funeral and gone back to work, but defied the company’s threats and done the right thing by their dead workmate. Ed.

Note: Firestone is owned by Japanese-based transnational Bridgestone which has annual sales of $US17 billion. Firestone in the US has been in the middle of a huge controversy where some of its tyres used on light trucks and sport utilities (mainly Fords) have contributed to the deaths of 148 people and over 525 injuries. 6.5 million tyres were recalled. Workers at the plant attributed the blowouts to poor quality standards caused by overwork (12 hour shifts), and scab workers introduced during a strike and not properly trained. In 1997 the Christchurch Firestone factory reduced the pay of its staff by 20% and rostered them over a 7 day instead of 5 day working week with 12 hour shifts instead of the usual 8 hours. This was in response to threats from the parent company that unless the factory reduced its costs by 30% it would be closed down. It was competing against a high level of imports of cheap Asian tyres.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2001.


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