On Monday at Pullen Church in Raleigh at an event sponsored by the National Farm Worker Ministry, two members of the British Parliament–Ian Lavery and James Sheridan–joined American farmworker leader Baldemar Velasquez to speak to over 200 supporters about their current tour and mission in the U.S. to fight for justice among farmworkers.
Velasquez is the founder and President of FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which has been doing battle with R.J. Reynolds in an effort to force its hand into complying with humanitarian standards. R.J. Reynolds, a corporation headquartered in Winston-Salem, has consistently done nothing to prevent their contract farms from oppressing farmworkers. These human rights abuses include abject poverty, racism, sexual harassment, nicotine poisoning, intimidation and threats, exposure to lethal pesticides, miserable housing conditions in labor camps, and the denial of basic human rights and labor protections. As Ian Lavery noted after seeing their living conditions, “rapists and murderers” have it better in prison than many of these hard-working farm laborers. With fury and passion he repeatedly said, “it’s not right.”
British American Tobacco (BAT), a multinational corporation based out of London, owns 42% of R.J. Reynolds. Two members of BAT are also on the RJR board of directors. Because of this business relationship between the UK and the US’s second-largest tobacco company, the British Parliament can play a role in effecting change. Lavery and Sheridan told the audience at Pullen that as they have toured tobacco farms throughout the South, they have been brought to tears on multiple occasions. Both expressed shock at the intimidation, mistreatment, harassment, and poverty they have witnessed. Lavery spoke of a woman he met holding a baby in her arms who told him of how her employer had demanded sex if she wanted to keep her job and get paid. He spoke of a man who had lost a finger who was left bleeding for an hour before his employer was forced to take him to the hospital.
Though at times painful, it was incredibly inspirational to see and hear from two foreign political leaders who had come so far to tour the tobacco farms of the American South. Both men deserve enormous credit for their selfless efforts to expose the horrific conditions of farm laborers who, as Lavery stated, are often not actually “living” but merely “existing.” As he also rightly noted, while there may be poverty in every country on earth, there is no excuse for this level of poverty and dehumanization in the wealthiest nation on the planet. Indeed, the one thing that struck both men the most on their tour was the degree of blatant dehumanization on the contract farms and in the labor camps — dehumanization that would outrage any fair-minded person in any country.
The bottom line: As desperate (and even hopeless) as the situation may seem, there is cause for hope. Last night, nearly 200 activists left the event fired up to reach out to their fellow North Carolinians and demand that they respond in a morally appropriate manner by joining the fight for basic human rights for their suffering sisters and brothers. As Baldemar Velasquez stated, at this point, the immediate goal is not victory but merely to put up a good fight. Only when people of good will begin to stand up and fight against the injustices that plague the nation’s farmworkers will we begin to realize the kind of small victories that can, ultimately, lead to fundamental change.
Let’s get to work.