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FLOC to meet tobacco execs on migrant worker conditions

By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa


Feb. 28, 2012: The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is getting ready to sit down with tobacco company execs to discuss harsh working conditions in the fields for migrant farm workers.


A long-term campaign to raise awareness of those harsh conditions appears to be paying off, according to Baldemar Velásquez, FLOC founder and president.


“We’ve had maybe one death a year for the last five years, including workers who have been in comas because of heat stroke,” he said. “That’s because workers lack fundamental rights to demand water and not fear retaliation.”

Much of FLOC’s more recent efforts center around the release of a report called: A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina’s tobacco industry,” which details the human rights impact of the tobacco industry on North Carolina’s farmworkers.

Baldemar Velásquez


“They’re afraid of deportation. They’re afraid of retaliation. They’re afraid of losing their jobs, getting thrown out of labor camps,” explained Velásquez. “They just work in fear all the time.”


FLOC teamed with Oxfam America, a grass-roots group dedicated to finding long-term solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice around the world, to put together the report, which revealed one in four tobacco farmworkers is paid less than the federal minimum wage.


According to the report, many migrant farm workers suffer from Green Tobacco Sickness, which occurs from absorbing nicotine through the skin. Others are subject to squalid living conditions, such as insect infested mattresses, overcrowding, and nonfunctioning toilets and showers. The report was formally unveiled at a rally in Dudley, NC, last fall, where farmworkers and community supporters had gathered for a series of meetings.


To date, FLOC has targeted its efforts against the tobacco industry, in general, and RJ Reynolds, in particular, which the union maintains realizes $2 billion in annual profits.


“They’re the most inequitable, the most exploitative of the tobacco companies,” said Velásquez. “They’re the most anti-union, so we picked them as a target.”


The migrant farm workers union is using the same strategy it employed to unionize the pickle industry in Ohio and North Carolina—with rallies, marches, economic boycotts, speeches at shareholder meetings, and other high-pressure tactics.


“We believe the other tobacco companies are watching this fight with Reynolds and we’re beginning to have some traction with them,” said Velásquez. “We have had some conference calls with some of the tobacco companies.”


Those calls follow a speaking tour of Europe, in which Velásquez blasted the working conditions in the United States for migrant farmworkers who pick tobacco. The FLOC founder and president went back to the North Carolina tobacco fields himself in the summer of 2008 so he could speak from personal experience regarding the daily life of a migrant farm worker.


“All these companies buy tobacco from North Carolina and the Deep South,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re all in the same boat in their complicity of oppressing the immigrant worker population in the Deep South.”


Velásquez visited Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom during that tour last April. FLOC leaders met with trade union execs that have interest in tobacco, unionized tobacco workers, and toured a major Turkish tobacco processing facility. FLOC even secured a meeting with the manager of that production facility, who had spent time in Mexico earlier in his career. The tour ended in London with a speech at the shareholders meeting of British American Tobacco, which owns 42 percent of RJ Reynolds.


“They’re the major stockholder and they buy a lot of tobacco from North Carolina to blend with their European products,” Velásquez explained. “That’s why we picked those four countries. They have the highest sales in those four countries.”


During the tour, FLOC released the results of a study of human rights violations in the tobacco fields of North Carolina.


“The Europeans were just shocked that such conditions existed in the United States, because the U.S. goes all over the world pointing fingers at the human rights violations of other countries and here it was happening right under their nose,” said Velásquez.


The chairman of British American Tobacco, after hearing a summary of that report, committed in front of the shareholders meeting to open a dialogue over the working conditions in the fields.


“That changes the game a little bit,” Velásquez said. “Now the companies have all agreed to sit in a meeting with FLOC in a stakeholder gathering to begin to clear the air over some of these issues. We’re negotiating right now how that’s to happen—who’s going to be at the first meeting, all of those preliminary issues.”


RJ Reynolds will be one of the companies represented at that meeting, which Velásquez expects to happen sometime this spring. But he noted FLOC has “a separate track going” with Philip Morris International, the world’s largest tobacco company. The migrant farmworkers union has participated in a couple of conference calls that were convened by the International Union Federation (IUF).


“We’re talking about the trainings that we do, the trainings that they want to do, and their protocols for supply chain participants,” explained Velásquez. “I can’t say we’re down the home stretch or anything like that, because it’s still an uphill battle. We have to continue to campaign to keep them honest while these dialogues are going on.”


One of those efforts involves spreading the campaign to college and university campuses. The FLOC leader stated tobacco companies are “making huge efforts” in their advertising and marketing “to try to secure the next generation of smokers in young people” by focusing their efforts on college campuses. Students are being recruited to carry a negative message about flavored tobacco brands in order to keep the pressure going on the tobacco companies.


“I’m always hopeful. I know something is going to happen at some point. I just can’t tell you when and I can’t tell you how,” said Velásquez. “All I can tell you is at some point in the future something’s going to happen.”


FLOC is returning to North Carolina this month for a series of events, including an interfaith prayer breakfast and a Festival of Hope. National Farmworker Awareness Week also occurs in late March. Part of the effort in North Carolina is an ongoing campaign against Kangaroo, the largest convenience store chain in the Southeast. McLane Co., Inc. is Reynolds American's largest customer and the largest distributor of tobacco products for Kangaroo. FLOC is trying to secure a meeting with the CEO of Kangaroo stores.



Copyright © 1989 to 2012 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 03/06/12 06:14:32 -0800.





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