Farm workers and R.J. Reynolds
Conditions for farm workers in North Carolina tobacco fields are always difficult and sometimes deadly. Between 2006 and 2008, nine NC farm workers lost their lives. Each year tens of thousands are affected by green tobacco sickness, a disabling condition caused by overexposure to nicotine absorbed through the skin. Nonetheless, very few farm workers have any health insurance, access to health care, or workers’ compensation insurance. Instead, they face poverty-level wages, substandard housing, racism, and harassment.
In 2004, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) won the largest union contract in the history of NC, gaining protections for approximately 8,000 farm workers working in the cucumber industry. Now FLOC is leading a campaign to defend the rights of thousands of other farm workers in NC, many of whom work in the tobacco fields. Read more.
For over three years, FLOC sought an opportunity to meet with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to discuss conditions for farm workers. Based in Winston-Salem, NC, R.J. Reynolds is the second-largest tobacco company in the U.S. producing one in every three cigarettes sold here. While farm workers are not directly employed by the company, it is uniquely positioned to bring about significant changes in North Carolina’s tobacco fields. R.J. Reynolds needs to acknowledge its responsibility for the workers who pick its tobacco and talk with FLOC.
R.J. Reynolds argues that farm workers are not employed by RJR but by growers. This is true. However, it does not absolve RJR of responsibility for the farm workers who produce its tobacco. RJR contracts with farmers to grow tobacco and specifies in some detail how the tobacco is to be grown. RJR has great power. If growers don’t agree to its specifics, RJR won’t buy their tobacco. Unfortunately, these contracts are silent regarding labor practices. Just like in the global anti-sweatshop movement, consumers and others concerned with justice believe that large corporations have the opportunity, power, and obligation to require their suppliers (growers in this case) to operate in a just, humane, and sustainable manner. Put another way, RJR needs to assume responsibility for its supply chain. The company also needs to pay more to farmers for their tobacco so they can afford to pay more to farm workers.
Finally in 2013, Reynolds America, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds, agree to meet with FLOC. Talks are currently underway.