FLOC has been trying for several years to get tobacco companies to allow farmworkers the right to for a union without fear of retaliation. There are currently no laws that protect the right of tobacco farmworkers to form a union or bargain collectively, said Velásquez. The issue of child labor would be much easier to address if workers were able to unionize, he said.
“There is no reason, in this day and age, in the wealthiest economy in the world, that children are working in the tobacco fields of North Carolina or anywhere else in the US where tobacco is grown,” said Velásquez.
FLOC earlier this month began signing up thousands of non-H2A tobacco farm workers in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. FLOC is asking that the tobacco companies protect their right to freedom of association without retaliation on contract farms. There are no laws which protect the right of a tobacco farm worker to form a union or bargain collectively
Velásquez said on Saturday that that effort will “continue moving forward.”
FLOC has been trying for years – with little success – to get tobacco companies to address horrendous work and living conditions reported by tobacco farmworkers and to allow workers the right to seek union representation.
Earlier this year tobacco industry giant, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, hired a public relations firm to design a vaguely worded plan that would eliminate any need for employee union representation by promising to set up a complaint system for workers. That proposed plan failed to include any guarantee that employees would be safe from retaliation. It also failed to include how human rights abuses would be addressed.
R.J. Reynolds officials could not be reached for comment.
Human Rights Watch recently released a report documenting child labor in United States tobacco fields throughout North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, where 90 percent of the country’s tobacco is grown. The report documents serious health problems among the children working in the fields.
The report came as no surprise to Velásquez, who says the issue of child labor in agriculture will not go away as long as farmworkers remain part of a “shadow work force.”
FLOC represents and advocates for tobacco farmworkers in North Carolina and the South, and has a collective agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association which covers the H2A workers who come from Mexico to work in the tobacco fields in the United States.
Velásquez had planned to share his plan to eliminate child labor in United States tobacco fields to the Global Tobacco Networking Forum at The Greenbrier, held October 3 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
Over 200 tobacco company executives from around the world attended the forum tobacco forum to discuss and network about the issues that challenge the tobacco industry, including the elimination of child labor in the tobacco fields globally. But organizers refused to allow Velásquez to attend the session.
FLOC arranged for a separate session to be held later in the day and forum attendees were invited to Velásquez’s session. Velásquez pointed out that FLOC had ended child labor in the tomato and cucumber fields of Ohio.
“If we could do it in Ohio, than we can do it in North Carolina and anywhere else in the US where tobacco is grown,” he said.
Although many child labor advocates call for more government regulation, Velásquez said that “the tobacco companies and leaf merchants have a responsibility to put into practice the human rights protocols they espouse including the elimination of child labor and freedom of association and not waiting for government action.”
Child labor is a symptom of the inequities in the supply chain at the point of tobacco production; and ending child labor isn’t just about pulling children out of the fields but also dealing with the economic inequities which forces children into the fields so that their families can survive.
“The fact is, that there is no tobacco farm in the US where workers have freedom of association without retaliation where child labor exists,” he said. “The workers would not allow it.”