North Carolina’s tobacco industry is riddled with human rights abuses, reports the AFL-CIO. According to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and global relief group Oxfam, tobacco farm workers’ rights – and their rights as human beings – are being crushed.
Firstly, tobacco farm workers don’t have the proper protective gear (like things as basic as gloves), because employers won’t issue them. Unprotected workers frequently fall victim to nicotine-related illnesses. Meanwhile, they are often paid less than minimum wage, regularly suffer working in scorching-hot fields, and do not have access to clean water. They are also forced to live in overcrowded areas overrun with rats.
So what about forming unions? According to the report, the tobacco workers are often afraid to do so.
This is because nine out of 10 of these North Carolina workers are undocumented immigrants, and the state is no friend to them. North Carolina lawmakers by and large favor anti-immigration policies.
A worrying example lies in the opinion of state Rep. Frank Iler, whose legislative committee is researching further anti-immigration methods. “My personal opinion,” said Iler, “is that we need to make North Carolina as unwelcome for any illegal alien from wherever they come.”
Iler wasn’t merely making some kind of sick joke. According to Star News Online, he supported and co-sponsored several anti-immigrant bills this past legislative session, including House Bill 11, which aimed to prevent undocumented immigrants from attending North Carolina colleges and universities. Moreover, he was an advocate of House Bill 33 – this one sought to ban the matricula consular cards issued by the Mexican Consulate as acceptable identification in North Carolina.
In response, FLOC is working with these tobacco workers to try and make a change, even under the most challenging conditions. FLOC reported that one of the committee’s leaders was deported after a routine traffic stop just a week ago.
Despite this, FLOC is putting pressure on Reynolds American, Inc. (42 percent of which is owned by British American Tobacco), and targeting JP Morgan Chase. which, said FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez, “made a killing from government bailouts” and have now “turned their backs on the suffering of the taxpayers who came to their rescue.”
In what was a big victory for tobacco workers, BAT agreed to meet with FLOC, marking the first time a corporation with close ties to Reynolds American has ever agreed to meet with workers, the AFL-CIO report said.
Joining FLOC in this effort is the UAW, which, in solidarity with farm workers, announced last year that it withdrew millions of its dollars from Chase, according to UAW president Bob King.
King said, “With my own eyes, I witnessed the squalid conditions farm workers are forced to live and work in. Chase Bank has an opportunity and a social responsibility to bring Reynolds Tobacco to the table to stop this human exploitation.”
And Velasquez stated that organized labor hopes Chase would begin encouraging more socially responsible behavior throughout the tobacco industry.
“Farm workers face job-related hazards, including heat stroke, pesticide, and acute nicotine poisoning,” he remarked. “If Chase wants to continue lending money to cigarette manufacturers, it should facilitate talks that could lead to improved conditions and saved lives.”