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by James Parks, May 5, 2011

Credit: Adam Wright/Union City
Protesters rally outside the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., last week.

The nearly 100,000 workers who travel to North Carolina each summer to harvest the state’s tobacco crop are often repaid for their hard work with sub-minimum wages, dangerous conditions in the fields and inhumane living conditions, according to findings released today from a human rights assessment conducted by Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

The findings will be presented tomorrow to the annual shareholders’ meeting of Reynolds American in Winston-Salem, N.C., where supporters will call on the company to take action to end the abuses in its supply chain. Although Reynolds does not directly employ the farm workers on its contract farms, it sets the terms with its contract growers and profits from the farm workers’ labor. The full report “A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry” will be released this summer. Click here to read the summary.

Key findings highlighted in the summary released today include:

  • One-fourth of workers report being paid less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
  • Most of the workers interviewed suffer regularly from symptoms of “green tobacco sickness,” which is caused by excessive absorption of nicotine through the skin.
  • Nearly all the workers who lived in employer-provided housing described inadequate or nonworking showers and toilets, overcrowding, leaky roofs, beds with mattresses that were worn out or missing, insect and rodent infestations and lacking or inadequate cooking and laundry facilities.

FLOC Secretary-Treasuer Beatriz Maya said at a rally, in front of the company’s headquarters:

For years Reynolds has made excuses, and tried to either deny that there’s a problem or shift the blame somewhere else, and we’re here today on Reynolds’ doorstep to tell them that there is a big problem, to show them the facts, and to let them know that we are holding them responsible. It’s time for Reynolds to do right by the workers who harvest their tobacco, and to come together with the rest of their industry to make changes. We do not accept their excuses for the inexcusable conditions that tobacco farm workers are being forced to endure.  

Meanwhile, momentum is building for a mass march and rally tomorrow in Winston-Salem to demand better conditions in the tobacco fields. Thousands of farm workers, community, labor and student allies will call on Reynolds to meet with FLOC to discuss the conditions workers face in the tobacco fields. For at least four years, Reynolds has refused to meet with FLOC.

Last week, the workers gained a major victory when executives of British American Tobacco (BAT), which owns 42 percent of Reynolds American, agreed to meet with FLOC later this month. This is the first time any corporation with close ties to Reynolds American has agreed to meet with workers.

Also last week, farm workers, union members and members of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) protested at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., and at British consulates in nine cities in support of the tobacco workers.

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