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FLOC delegation brings tobacco farm workers' human rights message to Europe and to BAT shareholders

6 May 2011 News
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Representatives from the IUF-affiliated Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) completed a 2 week European tour of meetings and protests targeting Reynolds America & BAT. The aim of the tour was to convince BAT to take responsibility for the appalling migrant worker conditions on tobacco farms in the US. FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez and Diego Reyes, a migrant worker from North Carolina opened the tour in Germany on April 17, followed by activity in Turkey and ending with a protest action at the London BAT Shareholders’ AGM on April 28.

In Germany FLOC representatives met the Tobacco Workers Group of the IUF-affiliated NGG (German Food, Beverages, Tobacco and Hotel Workers Union) and unionists from BAT headquarters in Hamburg, the Imperial Tobacco factory near Hamburg and the BAT factory in Bayreuth. All pledged their full support for the campaign. A meeting organized by Peace Brigades International/International Fellowship of Reconciliation committed to put more pressure on BAT and RJ Reynolds through non-governmental organizations in Germany.

FLOC representatives then travelled to Turkey where they met with the leadership and shop stewards of IUF affiliate Tekgıda-İş (Tobacco, Drink, Food and Allied Workers’ Union of Turkey) comparing amongst other things the conditions of tobacco farm workers in the USA and Turkey.

Meetings with BAT Turkish management in Istanbul and local BAT management in Samsun resulted in FLOC’s human rights message being delivered to BAT corporate offices in London via their Turkish management.

In Samsun Tekgıda-Is organized a press conference and coverage by local Turkish media. FLOC met with 200 workers from BAT’s Ballıca factory. FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez in his presentation stressed that, “BAT seems proud of its commitment to human rights yet tobacco farm workers are paid barely enough to live on, are forced to work in extremely hazardous conditions, frequently get sick and sometimes die in the fields, such is the extent of exploitation in North Carolina.”

In the UK FLOC representatives met with IUF-affiliated UNITE’s representatives in a solidarity event that included a concert performance by FLOC president Velasquez featuring his own compositions and labour movement songs.

At BAT’s April 28 annual shareholders’ meeting, Velasquez presented extracts from an Oxfam America report detailing the abuses of workers in the U.S. tobacco supply chain and urged BAT to take immediate steps to ensure that in its supply chain it respects human rights and its own corporate code of conduct. “We are urging the company to back up its words of support for human rights with monitoring and enforcement,” said Velasquez. “Through its significant influence over Reynolds America, BAT has the power and a moral obligation to take action to end these abuses.”

Following the interventions of Velasquez, Virginia Nesmith, Executive Director of the National Farm Worker Ministry and Ron Oswald, General Secretary of IUF, BAT chairman Richard Burrows committed the company to an urgent formal meeting with representatives of FLOC, the IUF, the AFL-CIO and the TUC to discuss conditions in U.S. tobacco fields. After four years of Reynolds America’s refusal to even meet with FLOC this will be the first time any corporation with close ties to Reynolds American has agreed to meet with FLOC representatives. For more than four years, Reynolds America has refused to even meet with FLOC.

BAT management also agreed to support an industry-wide approach bringing together those who are best placed to bring about positive change in US tobacco fields.

Commenting at the end of the FLOC European solidarity tour IUF general secretary Ron Oswald said, “The IUF will support our affiliate FLOC until human rights abuses in the tobacco fields are seriously addressed and working conditions of the mostly migrant and undocumented tobacco workers are improved.” Oswald went on to say, “Companies know they carry responsibility for these conditions, have profited from them for years and now need to come to the table to put an end to the appalling levels of exploitation witnessed in the tobacco fields of the richest economy in the world”.