State of Fear

CONTACTS:   FLOC: Briana Connors, 763-229-5970
    Oxfam America: Patrick Scully, 617-678-9098
Manufacturers Urged to Pursue Industry-Wide Solutions
Winston Salem, NC –The men and women who arrive in North Carolina each summer to tend and harvest the state’s economically critical tobacco crop are often repaid for their hard journey and work with subminimum wages, needlessly dangerous conditions in the fields, and inhumane living conditions. These are among the findings released today from a forthcoming, in-depth human rights assessment conducted by Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC).That assessment, “A State of Fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina’s tobacco industry,” will be published in full this summer.

Oxfam and FLOC released their summary of findings, together with recommendations for correcting abuses in the industry, on the eve of the annual shareholders’ meeting of Reynolds American International (RAI).  RAI is one of the major tobacco manufacturers whose profits are based on the abusive system they created and control.  Those abuses were documented during the last growing season and harvest by researchers who conducted over 100 one-on-one interviews with farm workers, and with growers, tobacco manufacturers and the governmental and nongovernmental agencies mandated to protect and serve the workers’ needs.

“This research reveals an industry that systematically exploits farm workers’ fears of arrest and deportation to deprive them of their basic, internationally recognized human rights,” said Minor Sinclair, Director of Oxfam America’s U. S. Regional Office, which oversaw the adaptation and execution of the international research model used for this study. ”These stunning findings should be a wake-up call to everyone attending the RAI shareholders’ meeting.  Do they really want to be a part of system that perpetuates these inhumane conditions?  We hope the people who can truly influence RAI will review this meticulously documented, first-hand research and take the suggested actions contained in the report.  Nothing less is acceptable,” he said.

Among the findings highlighted in the summary released today are:

• One-fourth of workers reported being paid less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
• Most of the workers interviewed suffer regularly from symptoms of “green tobacco sickness” (GTS) including dizziness, vomiting, weakness, coughing, nosebleeds, and headaches. GTS is caused by excessive absorption of nicotine through the skin and can be prevented by use of gloves and other protective clothing.
• Heat stroke is the leading cause of work-related death among farm workers, and many workers reported a lack of clean water or sufficient breaks to protect themselves from dehydration.
• Nearly all who lived in employer-provided housing described inadequate or non-working showers and toilets, overcrowding, leaky roofs, beds with mattresses that were worn out or missing, insect and rodent infestations, and lacking or inadequate cooking and laundry facilities.
• Growers who were interviewed said that changes in the industry have left them with little or no profit margin and no way to negotiate for better prices that would enable them to offer more to their workers.
The report concludes with these recommendations:
• Manufacturers must ensure respect for international human rights just as strictly as they ensure the quality and quantity of tobacco from their growers.
• Industry leaders should create a council that brings together manufacturers, growers, farm workers, and their chosen representative, allowing all parties to have a voice and creating an effective tool for workers to ensure legal compliance in the workplace.
• Manufacturers should act to ensure stability in the tobacco industry by allowing more grower input in their pricing formulas and by using multiyear contracts, agreed to earlier in the season, giving the growers more time to plan.
As summer approaches, the next cycle is beginning. Hundreds of workers have already arrived at farms across the state to begin preparing and planting the fields. Their numbers will swell to about 100,000 by harvest time. This gives special urgency to efforts to address the problems uncovered by the researchers and to begin implementing their recommendations for resolving them.   Although many of the tobacco manufacturers, including RAI, profess support for human rights throughout the tobacco supply chain, those words are not enough.

 “Every day of delay is a day when workers will be needlessly sickened because of the lack of safety equipment or of adequate clean drinking water, when workers will continue to be paid illegal sub-minimum wages, when they will have to endure squalid, unsanitary housing, and when instead of being able to speak up to change these conditions they will continue to be silenced by fear,” said FLOC organizer Justin Flores. “This is an emergency that shames the entire tobacco industry and at Reynolds’ shareholder meeting tomorrow we will challenge the company to be a leader in its industry by taking responsibility and taking action to make things right.”
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