The work of harvesting tobacco is difficult and dangerous, and is largely performed by immigrant “guest” workers. They have turned to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to seek improvement in their conditions, but growers in North Carolina and surrounding states have largely thwarted their organizing efforts to date. That’s why a faith leader delegation including the Catholic Labor Network’s Executive Director Clayton Sinyai recently met with officials of RJ Reynolds Tobacco.
Current conditions in the market create a race to the bottom, in which large numbers of small growers compete to produce tobacco for RJR at the lowest prices, leading to low wages and living standards for workers. Most of the labor is performed by “guest” workers recruited through the H2A program, who are subject to deportation if they displease the grower or labor contractor who sponsored their work permit. FLOC says that RJR – a large, profitable corporation – needs to take responsibility for labor practices in its supply chain, even if that leads to modest increases in the cost of tobacco.
The faith leaders, who also included Julie Taylor of the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) and Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, were invited to the meeting after collecting more than 600 signatures of faith leaders across the country on a letter deploring conditions in the industry that was addressed to RJR’s corporate parent, British American Tobacco. They urged RJR to negotiate an MOU with FLOC that would ensure the right to organize is respected on the farms of their growers.
RJR officials contended that they had taken several unilateral steps to promote better working conditions in the industry and sought to evade responsibility for workers’ rights at their suppliers, but the faith leaders were insistent that negotiations with FLOC continue.
The Catholic Labor Network is a member of the NFWM. For more information on the meeting, CLICK HERE