Reynolds American Incorporated (RAI) is the second-largest tobacco company in the United States (after Philip Morris) with annual profits of over USD 2 billion. Its shareholders have enjoyed an over 80% rate of return over the past 5 years. British American Tobacco (BAT) holds a 42% share, making it the largest shareholder.
Reynolds sources most of its tobacco leaf from the company’s home state of North Carolina. North Carolina tobacco field workers are mostly migrant workers primarily from Mexico and Central America, recruited through contractors to work on the farms of North Carolina tobacco growers. About 20% of Reynolds’ contract tobacco growers are members of the North Carolina Growers Association, through which workers are recruited in compliance with the law – workers who enjoy decent working and living conditions. However, the vast majority of tobacco growers recruit through labour contractors, including many involved in the trafficking of undocumented workers who lack the labour and human rights protections needed to ensure decent wages and working and living conditions.
The IUF-affiliated Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) is currently working to secure rights and decent working conditions for 25,000 tobacco farm workers – including the tens of thousands of migrant workers who travel to North Carolina to harvest tobacco.
Tobacco field workers suffer long hours of stoop work in the fields under the burning sun. In recent years, nine tobacco workers have died in North Carolina, with most of these deaths due to heat stroke.
After long, hot days in the fields, workers return to labour camps – too often dirty and cramped quarters with poor ventilation and leaky roofs, with bare bunks or moldy mattresses and rudimentary and poorly maintained toilets and showers. In camps with no cooking facilities, workers are obliged to buy food at high prices from the camp supervisor.
Tobacco field workers are often exposed to noxious nicotine and pesticides and are at risk for green tobacco sickness (GTS), which is caused by nicotine absorption through the skin. Labour camps often lack adequate facilities for washing clothes contaminated by pesticides and tobacco residue.
But what these workers lack in particular is a say in the conditions which impact their lives.
FLOC is both a labour union and a social movement dedicated to securing rights for migrant and immigrant workers in the agricultural industry. Through ceaseless organising and campaigning, FLOC has won collective bargaining rights for agricultural workers in the face of fierce opposition from farm owners supported by the TNCs which source their farm produce. In North Carolina, FLOC has negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association, but this does not cover any of workers on the approximately 80% of the state’s farms not affiliated to the NCGA.
In 2006, FLOC launched a campaign to extend trade union rights to tobacco workers. In September 2007, FLOC sought a meeting with Susan Ivey, the CEO of Reynolds American Inc., to discuss the conditions of field workers producing its products. She refused to meet, claiming that her company has no responsibility for these workers. FLOC has since begun a public campaign to persuade Reynolds American to take responsibility for the working and living conditions of farm workers that produce the tobacco they manufacture into cigarettes. Ivey is now using the public campaign as a further pretext not to meet with FLOC, accusing it of bad faith.
The IUF holds British American Tobacco, which owns 42% of RAI and has 5 out of 12 seats on the RAI board of directors, equally responsible for the conditions of tobacco farm workers in North Carolina. We are calling on our affiliates to write to BAT corporate management insisting that they assume their responsibility and use their influence to persuade RAI to meet with FLOC and begin working to improve the working and living conditions of the poorest and most vulnerable workers in their supply chain.
For more information about the living and working conditions on North Carolina tobacco farms, click here for testimonials from farm labourers.
We thank you for your solidarity!