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Union: Tobacco Giants Ignore NC Farm Workers' Concerns

Two union members and tobacco workers on a North Carolina farm. (Farm Labor Organizing Committee)
Two union members and tobacco workers on a North Carolina farm. (Farm Labor Organizing Committee)
June 1, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. -- A labor union representing more than 9,000 farmworkers says the coronavirus pandemic has made working conditions worse for migrant laborers on North Carolina tobacco farms.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, is calling on the multi-billion-dollar corporations that purchase tobacco from these growers to take action.

Justin Flores, the committee's vice president, says thousands of agricultural workers arrive in North Carolina each year to harvest tobacco used by the world's largest cigarette companies.

"They (companies) put a lot pressure to keep prices down, to keep quality high, that really ends up being the reason that farmworkers face such bad working conditions and wages," Flores states. "They've decided to avoid engaging about these issues, and to avoid putting the money in their supply chain to help growers improve housing, improve wages."

Groups, including the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, are asking tobacco purchasers to use their wealth and industry control to help growers implement better labor conditions. To date, Flores says, companies such as Reynolds American and Philip Morris International have refused.

Flores adds that tobacco farms in the state are retaliating against workers for speaking out about abuses, or for joining unions, by choosing not to rehire them. He says some farms have even threatened workers with not being able to come back into the United States if they complain.

"In the case of OJ Smith Farms in Whitakers, N.C., some of the workers at the farm joined our union, highlighted some really serious abuses," Flores relates. "The labor contractor there was stealing wages, was not reimbursing things properly."

In March, the contractor who supplies farm labor to O J Smith Farms was cited and fined for violating federal guest worker visa requirements.

Flores says the blacklisted workers and their families are now struggling, with no source of income during the pandemic.

"It really just shows how these companies operate to see that months into a pandemic, and they're donating a handful of masks," he points out. "They haven't said they're going to put money into improved housing, to put money into bigger housing that's less crowded."

Flores says an online petition calls for tobacco companies to work with unions to stop the blacklisting and exploitation on their contract farms. The union also backs a retailer and consumer boycott of Reynolds' e-cigarette brand, VUSE, until the company addresses these issues.

Disclosure: Farm Labor Organizing Committee contributes to our fund for reporting on Livable Wages/Working Families, Rural/Farming, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC