AFL-CIO Demands Better Protections, Union Rights for Tobacco Farmworkers

Reproduced with permission from Occupational Safety & Health Reporter, 44 OSHR 707 (July 31, 2014). Copyright 2014 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) <>
July 28 — AFL-CIO organizers said July 28 they will insist the major tobacco companies provide better safety and health protections for farmworkers and allow them to form unions, with the threat of consumer boycotts if their demands aren’t met.
Tobacco farmworkers face hazardous levels of nicotine, pesticides and heat, as well as risk of injuries from repetitive motion, heights, sharp tools and heavy machinery, according to Human Rights Watch.
A recent fact-finding tour of North Carolina tobacco farms also revealed human rights abuses, including human trafficking, sexual abuse and squalid housing conditions, said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, during a conference call.
‘Prisons Have Better Conditions.’
“In the land of the free, the home of the brave, slave standards actually exist,” said Tefere Gebre, AFL-CIO executive vice president, during the call.
“Prisons have much better conditions than these labor camps,” said Ian Lavery, a member of British Parliament and former president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who also went on the fact-finding tour. “You wouldn’t keep a wild animal in some of the labor camps that we’ve seen.”
Some 90 percent of North Carolina tobacco workers are immigrants, many of whom are illegally trafficked into the country, Lavery said. The exact number of tobacco workers in the state is unknown because many of them are undocumented, but Velasquez estimated the count at about 30,000.
Union Plots Reform Strategy.
The major tobacco companies seek to distance themselves from the problems farmworkers face by claiming not to be their employers, Velasquez said, but they still bear the responsibility for having created a system that deprives the workers of fair wages and the right to freely associate.
“It’s there by design,” Velasquez said. “It’s not something that accidentally happens.”
He also said the AFL-CIO will create a forum to discuss workers’ rights with manufacturers and retailers, modeled after a campaign in the 1980s in which the union brokered an agreement with tomato and cucumber suppliers contracted by Campbell Soup.
The union will also call on its network of supporters across the country and mull the possibility of boycotting 7-Eleven, Kangaroo Express and Wawa stores, which together account for roughly one-third of R.J. Reynolds America’s consolidated revenue, according to Velasquez.
“Whoever’s making money is going to be held complicit,” he said.
Tobacco Companies Respond.
Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA, told Bloomberg BNA that he hadn’t heard of any of the most serious allegations by the AFL-CIO, such as human trafficking and sexual abuse.
Caldwell also said Altria recently reviewed all of its contracted growers and saw no significant violations of a vetting and inspections protocol known as the Good Agricultural Practices Program, which the tobacco giant developed in conjunction with the Department of Labor.
Altria further enforces a supplier code of conduct that sets clear standards for worker treatment, Caldwell said.
An R.J. Reynolds spokesman declined to comment on the specific allegations, but the company has said in a fact sheet that it “has taken constructive steps to help these farmers provide their workers with safe working conditions and living conditions.”
Farm Owners Only Contractors?
Those interventions include clear contractual requirements and obligations, training and recordkeeping resources and participation in a multi-stakeholder committee called the Farm Labor Practices Group, according to the document.
British American Tobacco also works with AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee and has recently established new training programs for farmworkers that address worker rights and farm safety, offered financial support to refurbish farmworkers’ homes and set up working groups to address issues such as grievance procedures for farmworkers and child labor, Will Hill, a company spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA July 29.
All three tobacco companies said the extent to which tobacco companies can be held responsible for farm labor issues is limited, because the farm owners are only contractors.
Bolstering that argument is the fact that many farms grow tobacco as just one of several crops, the tobacco companies said. Some farms also sell to more than one tobacco company, said Caldwell.
Hill said that, while British American Tobacco is a major shareholder of R.J. Reynolds, “We do not control the company and, as such, cannot compel them to act.”
But James Sheridan, another member of British Parliament who went on the fact-finding tour, dismissed that defense as an “abdication of responsibility.”
Both Lavery and Sheridan represent the Labour Party. Their involvement in the matter came at the request of Velasquez, Lavery said.