The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Hey Reynolds, North Carolina tobacco workers deserve decent workplaces

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Photo courtesy of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee

“Do you believe that Reynolds American tobacco, as a company, has a responsibility to guarantee freedom of association for workers in your supply chain?”

Oliver Gottfried is a senior advocacy and collaborations advisor at Oxfam America.

In a room full of Reynolds Tobacco shareholders, I asked this question of Tom Wajnert, the Chairman of the Board, at their Annual Meeting in North Carolina earlier this month. I stood up to make what I thought was a simple request: enable workers in the fields to utilize their right to join together as they please. This is a fundamental right, and has protected individuals and groups for years as they’ve bargained for decent workplaces, i.e. safer conditions, reasonable hours, better pay.

It was a small windowless conference room in Reynolds’ corporate headquarters and our small group of activists and supporters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) were surrounded by dark-suited tobacco executives and shareholders. We came to represent the voices of the tens of thousands of farmworkers working outside in the already-oppressive early summer heat. We came to ask Reynolds to guarantee freedom of association for these workers and for a guarantee that workers who sign a card and ask for a raise do not face retaliation.

Unsurprisingly, Wajnert avoided giving a direct answer to my question. The room that day was not only filled with shareholders, but also activists and supporters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). We also asked for a guarantee that workers who sign a card and ask for a raise do not face retaliation.

Wajnert claimed that current laws already protect workers from retaliation for engaging in collective action. While this may be technically true, it conveniently ignores another truth – that farmworkers are exempted from the labor laws that protect most other workers in the US, including protection from retaliation for seeking better wages.

It was not like we expected a different response from Wajnert that day. For the last seven years, Reynolds has refused to recognize basic human rights for the workers who toil in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. But we were disheartened, as another growing season has begun in the American South, and thousands of workers and their families will once again be facing the same inhumane conditions.

FLOC has consistently made three simple requests of Reynolds:

  • stop relying on human trafficking for labor supply;
  • end the squalor in labor camps; and
  • guarantee freedom of association and protection from retaliation if workers complain about abuses, poor working conditions, or low wages.

Three years ago, Oxfam and FLOC joined together to conduct a study of human rights abuses for tobacco workers. Our report, “A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry,” helped shine a light on the terrible conditions, low pay, and intimidation in the tobacco fields in North Carolina. As a result, Reynolds agreed two years ago to begin negotiations with FLOC. But unfortunately, to date, little progress has been made.

FLOC is not backing down, however. This summer, they are launching a new campaign called Respect, Recognition, Raise, which aims to sign-up 5,000 new tobacco workers. This tremendous showing of grassroots strength aims to prove to Reynolds and other tobacco companies that workers in their supply chain demand respect, want union representation, and expect a raise above the current sub-poverty level wages. This is why, in anticipation, Oxfam, FLOC, and religious and community leaders from across North Carolina joined together at the shareholder meeting.

It is getting harder for Reynolds and other tobacco companies to continue ignoring the terrible human rights abuses in their fields. Last year, FLOC President Baldemar Velazquez was interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS show, bringing national attention to the plight of these workers. And just the week before the shareholder meeting, President Velazquez and European religious leaders attended the shareholder meeting of British American Tobacco (BAT), which currently owns over 40% of Reynolds tobacco. Velazquez put the situation of American tobacco workers high on the agenda, and reminded BAT of the human rights commitments in their own company code of conduct. Finally, while in London, Velazquez also confirmed that two members of the British Parliament will travel to North Carolina this summer to witness the terrible conditions in tobacco farms first-hand; Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) will join them.

The heat I felt when I stood in front, facing Reynolds executives and shareholders, is nothing compared to the heat, humidity, squalid camps, and nicotine poisoning faced by the workers who plant, cultivate, and harvest their tobacco every day.

This was the seventh year that FLOC and its supporters have come to Reynolds’ shareholder meeting and we’ll keep coming back for the next seven, or however long it takes until tobacco workers get the justice they deserve.

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