Members of British Parliament Pledge to Support NC Tobacco Farmworkers

On December 13, 2013, Members of the British Parliament received an unusual briefing, when FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez met with Members at the Westminster to report on the serious human rights abuses occurring in tobacco fields throughout the South. The meeting was a collaborative effort of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Unite the Union, and The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF).  View the full press release here

Velasquez shared his personal story as a former migrant farmworker, and reported on the state of tobacco farmworkers throughout North Carolina and the South, citing human rights violations commonly reported by tobacco farmworkers including pesticide and nicotine poisoning among other health problems, workplace injuries, sub-minimum wages and wage theft, and inadequate housing.

Velasquez made the case to Members of Parliament yesterday that other major tobacco companies, such as British American Tobacco (BAT), which owns 42% of Reynolds American, have a crucial role to play in pushing Reynolds to eliminate abuses on their contract farms. “BAT also profits from the tobacco that Reynolds sells, and therefore has a responsibility to see that fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, and the right to organize and collectively bargain are protected in Reynolds’ supply chain.”

Shocked by Velasquez’s testimony, two labor party members of Parliament, Hon. Ian Lavery and Hon. James Sheridan pledged to support FLOC’s campaign. “We have got to do everything we possibly can, meetings like this are very important … It’s imperative to keep up the good work,” Mr. Lavery commented.

Sheridan committed to introducing an “Early Day Motion” to Parliament to raise awareness of the issue and gather support among other Members. He also committed to circulate a sign-on letter to other Members which will be sent to BAT, calling on the company to take immediate action to ensure that Reynolds sign an agreement with FLOC and guarantee basic human rights throughout their supply chain, citing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as the foundation of the company’s responsibility in the matter.

BAT letter del smallFollowing the meeting, Velasquez was joined by Rhys McCarthy, UNITE National Officer, Ron Oswald, IUF General Secretary, Aaron Chappell representing the AFL-CIO, and Owen Tudor, TUC, Head, European Union and International Relations Department, (all pictured on left) to deliver a letter to BAT Chairman Richard Burrows at BAT headquarters expressing “grave concern” about the conditions in NC tobacco fields, and calling on BAT “to use its position to intervene with Reynolds American Inc. to ensure an agreement is reached based on the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s proposal.”

Simon Milton, Corporate and Regulatory Officer at BAT, received letter on behalf of Burrows and agreed to visit the tobacco fields in NC to see conditions firsthand, pending the company’s approval.

“I feel very encouraged by today’s meetings,” commented Velasquez. “I am glad to see Members of Parliament taking steps to raise awareness among other Members and contacting BAT about their responsibility to protect human rights in the global tobacco supply chain. It will surely send a signal to BAT and Reynolds that this issue isn’t going to go away until workers see improvements in the tobacco fields and have respect and representation in the workplace.”

religious leaders MP visit small
Several prominent religious leaders also attended the consultation in support of FLOC. From left to right: Rev. Paul Regan, Convener, Social Responsibility Commission, Methodist London District, Anne Martin, Society of the Sacred Heart, Rev. Raymond Singh, Vice President, Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility, James Trewby, Columban Fathers, Rev Roberta Rominger, General Secretary, United Reform Church, Rhys McCarthy, UNITE National Officer, Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC President