Commentary

Condition of farmworkers in NC now an international human rights matter

MP-Tobacco

Members of British parliament tour an NC tobacco field

How bad is the situation for farmworkers in North Carolina these days? This ridiculously bad: A member of the British parliament gave a speech yesterday in the House of Commons in which he spoke about his fact-finding mission here and likened what he found to “modern slavery.”

It’s hard to know what’s worse: that we’re rightfully being treated as some kind of third world country or that it takes someone from Great Britain to do the job being ignored by our own leaders.

This is from the good people at the Farm Labor Organizing Committee:

MP POINTS TO ABUSES IN NORTH CAROLINA TOBACCO FIELDS DURING HOUSE OF COMMONS DEBATE AS A MODERN SLAVERY RISK

December 16, 2014 – In an Adjournment Debate in the House of Commons this morning on human rights abuses in UK company supply chains, Ian Lavery, MP from Wansbeck, spoke to the conditions he found on a fact finding visit to the tobacco fields of North Carolina in July of this year as a “modern slavery risk.” The debate was in support of the Modern Slavery Bill, which would investigate and monitor modern slavery risks in UK company supply chains, is presently going through Parliament.

British American Tobacco, based in London, is a major customer and largest owner of Reynolds American Inc., which contracts with North Carolina tobacco growers.

Lavery said “the working conditions that we saw were absolutely atrocious, with unbelievably long hours of manual labour in unbearable heat; squalid living conditions, which mean workers have a lower quality of life than inmates in UK prisons; and employers showing a total disregard for basic health and safety regulations … which meant that many of them develop green tobacco sickness, an affliction with symptoms including nausea, intense headaches, vomiting and insomnia.”

Lavery was part of a fact finding delegation which included James Sheridan, MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North. The MPs were invited by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to visit labor camps and talk to workers. FLOC represents and advocates for tobacco farm workers in North Carolina and the US South.

The MPs issued a report of their findings in November, A Smokescreen for Slavery: Human Rights Abuses in UK Supply Chains Fact finding visit to the tobacco fields of North Carolina.

“We had the opportunity to witness at first hand some of the many human rights abuses endured by tobacco industry workers in the fields of America,” Lavery said. “We heard disturbing stories of what is essentially daily life for them—instances of child labour, sexual exploitation of women and human trafficking. It was a world away from what we would expect in a developed country and the so-called ‘land of the free’, which is one of the richest nations in the world.”

“Urgency is needed to tackle this issue,” Lavery said. “Worryingly, stories such as those I have mentioned from North Carolina are not uncommon. The reality is that, over the last decade, current measures have failed to tackle modern slavery in our supply chains. We have seen first hand how the lack of regulation of the industry in America breeds worker exploitation, so the focus must be on imposing regulations on all companies throughout the world that feed into supply chains in Britain. Companies should have to report on their working conditions and those of their suppliers, to ensure that we have transparency in our supply chains and that we can help reduce the risk of modern slavery.”

In a meeting with BAT on October 29 with MPs, Lavery said, BAT expressed sympathy with the workers in question, but it refused to be proactive in regulating its own practices. BAT has also ignored calls, Lavery said, to use its influence as an owner and customer of Reynolds American to urge that company to sign an agreement with FLOC that details a process to guarantee freedom of association to tobacco farm workers on Reynolds American contract farms.

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez said, “I welcome the support of these MPs who want to make BAT accountable for the conditions on the farms in their supply chains.”

Video of debate can be watched at: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16772

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