At a meeting held yesterday, two members of the British Parliament, Ian Lavery and James Sheridan, released their fact-finding report about the conditions of farmworkers working in North Carolina tobacco fields.
The report, A Smokescreen for Slavery: Human Rights Abuses in UK Supply Chain, exposes a horrific list of human rights violations including child labor by children as young as seven, substandard housing with no ventilation and bug infested mattresses, and exploitation of workers by having them work inhumane hours for very little pay. Other areas of concern identified by the report include a lack of access to clean drinking water for workers and a lack of protective clothing to prevent infection from pesticides and even from the tobacco plant itself. The report also explains that some of the inhumane living and working conditions are permitted by lax labor standards. For example, under North Carolina law, it is legal for thirty men to share two toilets with no dividers.
The main problem, as explained by the report, is that farmworkers are afraid to report these issues for fear of being fired or deported (since many are undocumented). The National Labor Relations Act, the only law that allows workers to unionize and make demands without fear of retaliation, does not include agriculture workers. The report concludes that until farmworkers are free to join and form trade unions, they won’t be able to speak out about the injustices they face.
The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) invited Lavery and Sheridan to observe the inhumane conditions firsthand in an effort to get Reynolds American Inc. (Reynolds), a major purchaser of the tobacco produced in these fields, to end the human rights injustices in its supply chain. British American Tobacco (BAT), a UK based company, owns 42% of Reynolds. Based on the report shared yesterday, an Early Day Motion signed by thirty-four members of Parliament urged BAT to use its influence over Reynolds to reach an agreement with FLOC which would allow the workers to organize and demand humane living and working conditions.
“After seven years of farmworkers bringing these issues to the tobacco industry, we deeply appreciate the members of Parliament visiting with our membership in North Carolina and look forward to their broad publicity of the injustices that that they witnessed first hand,” said FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. “We hope BAT and Reynolds will take this seriously and finally move to clean up their supply chains.”