July 28, 2014
Over the weekend, U.S Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and British Members of Parliament Ian Lavery and James Sheridan participated in a fact-finding delegation to North Carolina fields to examine the human rights conditions in the supply chain of British and American tobacco manufacturers. This binational delegation was joined by AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre and FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez.
The participants came together with a unified goal: to hear from farmworkers themselves about the abuses they face in the workplace.
On Saturday, July 26, the delegation traveled to Lenoir and Duplin counties to speak with farmworkers in the fields and in their labor camps.
One worker’s greeting came in the form of a soft handshake, as his index finger was wrapped tightly in a white bandage. The very week before, his finger had become entangled in tobacco harvesting machinery. As he sought help in the midst of this emergency, he was brushed aside, and not so much as offered a ride to the hospital. After almost two hours of bleeding out in the blaring sun, he was finally taken to the doctor, where part of the finger had to be amputated. He now faces the question of how to pay for this costly medical procedure, as his employer has denied responsbility, refusing to cover the expenses of this on the job injury.
Following the camp visits, the delegation sat for a human rights hearing in the FLOC union
Testifiers spoke to a gamut of workplace abuses, including sexual harrassment, intimidation and retaliation, denied workers compensation, pesticide exposure without proper protection, subminimum wages and wage theft.
“We never know when we could get fired,” one tobacco farmworker said, addressing the hall. “It could be for going to the bathroom. It happened to one of my colleagues. What do they expect us to do?”
Those who testified represented a variety of circumstances, being women, men, children, union and non-union members, documented and undocumented workers.
One such testimony came from a young woman who courageously stood up and told her story. A new mother with a baby in her arms, she has been spending the summer months trying to earn enough money to feed her family in the fields of North Carolina. Yet the labor contractor she works for, the man who wields power over her having the chance to feed her children, asks for sexual favors in return for the very opportunity to work. If denied, he simply finds a labor source elsewhere.
Stories like these continued throughout the night. After close to two hours of worker testimony, UK Parlamentarian Ian Lavery stood up and addressed the crowd. “Your demands are meek. Decent safety and housing. Decent wages, terms and conditions. These are basic human rights!”
NC State AFL-CIO James Andrews and AFL-CIO EXP Tefere Gebre en la lucha with FLOC!
His fellow Parlimentarian, James Sheridan, nodded in agreement, adding that they “wouldn’t put wild animals in such conditions.” Congresswoman Kaptur and Executive Vice President Tefere mirrored their remarks, feeling certain that such conditions are not the America they know and love, an America based on ideals of freedom and liberty. Both issued a call for action, and pledged their support for change.
The horror of the delegation deepened as they journeyed out again the next day to meet with more workers in counties across North Carolina. The stories continued to point to the fact that these are not isolated incidents, but rather wide spread systemic problems. Squalor and human trafficking are made worse by the fear of retaliation at the thought of addressing these concerns.
Sunday night, the Honorable Ian Lavery and James Sheridan spoke of their continued impressions at a community forum at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Hosted by the National Farmworker Ministry, Triangle Friends of Farmworkers, and FLOC, the event brought together a packed house of religious leaders, community supporters, and representatives from other organizations who pledged their dedication to the “Respect, Recognition, Raise!” Campaign, and to bringing justice to the fields of North Carolina through freedom of association for farm workers. Assisting in this fight for freedom from retaliation are an ever growing group of camp monitors. These are independent individuals from various churches and backgrounds who are volunteering their time to accompany organizers into the camps and speak witness to the retaliation occurring. Efforts such as these point to the uniting effect of this campaign, as the religious community comes together to help farmworkers seizing their rights.
On Monday, the MPs took what they had seen a step further, traveling to DC to meet with top labor leaders and the President of the AFL-CIO. They also will be issuing a report, speaking in Parliament to start a debate, and taking their findings to British American Tobacco.