Here, we are more accustomed to asking: Under what conditions did people work to bring this food to our table?
That consciousness is due largely to Baldemar Velásquez, the founder and leader of the Toledo-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).
Baldemar has opened our eyes to the conditions under which people work and to the human side of the food story.
Mr. Velásquez’s efforts began 35 ago, when, as a young Mexican-American labor leader, he organized the workers in Ohio’s tomato fields who were toiling under deplorable conditions. Back then, the target was Campbell’s Soup, which had refused to engage the Ohio workers in dialogue and even employed strikebreakers. It took the better part of a decade, but FLOC eventually celebrated an historic victory with the signing of a labor contract covering 800 farmworkers.
Now Baldemar has turned his attention to tobacco production in North Carolina. Once again, as was the case in Northern Ohio, the picture is not very pretty.
Earlier this year I traveled with Baldemar to the fields of eastern Carolina and saw for myself the injustice and human suffering hidden behind the broad leaves of the tobacco plants.
During my visit, I found workers who labor 11 hours a day under grueling conditions at high season for $7.25 an hour. As many as 12 men sleep jammed inside ramshackle, dilapidated trailers or barracks. There is no hot water, no decent laundry facilities, and no air conditioning. Flush toilets are considered a luxury. I saw injured workers, including one man who had lost part of his index finger in a work accident, who lacked basic protections and health care. I heard women testify of the sexual abuse they face to secure work and pay, but still they and their children live in squalor in the richest nation in the world.
I joined Baldemar in North Carolina to lend my voice in support of his coalition of elected officials, religious organizations, community groups, and others of good will. We are asking R.J. Reynolds and BAT (British American Tobacco) to infuse their supply chains with human decency by insisting growers stop labor trafficking, pay a decent wage, provide humane living conditions and observe basic human rights.
The workers in North Carolina are making only small requests: a guest worker program to end the human trafficking; an end to the squalid living conditions; a channel to air grievances without fear of retaliation.
We came away with the realization that Americans and the world will not tolerate this level of injustice if they become aware of its existence. The American people will work to correct it, but these injustices must be brought to light through awareness.
We’ve been down this road before. We must make sure that the tobacco fields of North Carolina are not the scene of America’s latest “harvest of shame.” Support Baldemar Velásquez and FLOC in this latest campaign for human justice.