Rallying for rights

By Andrew Blejwas
Joel Lopez, an organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, attends a rally for farmworker rights in Raleigh, NC May 7.

Baldemar Velazquez urged the crowd to move out of the shade.

“Come into the sun, everyone. Stand in the sun with me,” Velazquez said, swooping his arms together the direction of the field in front of him.

Grudgingly, some of the hundreds of marchers who had gathered in Winston-Salem in support of farmworkers, eased out of the shadows into the field.

“This is what farmworkers are dealing with right now, right here in North Carolina,” said Velazquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC)  referring to the heat, which at 88 degrees was 16 degrees above average for the day. “(The) workers are stooped over in the fields making the life of leisure for the people in (RJ Reynolds’) executive offices. It’s not only an injustice, it’s a moral disgrace.”

The endlessly energetic Velazquez, and hundreds of farmworker and FLOC supporters, were in Winston-Salem for RJ Reynolds’ annual shareholders’ meeting to introduce a shareholders’ resolution that would require the company to adopt a strict human rights policy. In addition to the resolution, FLOC is seeking a formal meeting with RJ Reynolds CEO Susan Ivey to discuss ways to improve the working conditions in tobacco fields.

Despite having little chance of being adopted, the shareholders’ resolution is an opportunity to bring the issue of farmworker justice directly to RJ Reynolds officials. This year, Oxfam America Campaign and Advocacy Advisor Irit Tamir asked Ivey and others to support a stronger human rights policy.  Oxfam and its allies believe that the weak human rights policy adopted by RJ Reynolds’ in February does little to ensure that the workers who pick the company’s tobacco – merely encouraging the company’s contractors to improve tobacco picker conditions, not demanding it.

And those conditions are brutal. Tobacco workers face some of the toughest conditions in the industry, including racism, long hours of stooped labor, exposure to dangerous chemicals and annual incomes of less than $8,000. Though RJ Reynolds claims an ‘independent’ survey of tobacco workers by a company it hired reveals that tobacco pickers are satisfied with their working conditions, it’s doubtful the workers at the May 7 rally would agree.

In its effort to rectify these conditions, FLOC has repeatedly sought a meeting with Ivey, only to have those overtures ignored. FLOC is also making its case publicly at shareholder meetings and through the media.

RJ Reynolds adopted its existing human rights policy partly in response to that work. While simultaneously distancing itself from the workers who pick its tobacco, claiming that because they work for a Reynolds contractor, they aren’t Reynolds employees. While technically true, FLOC and Oxfam believe that Reynolds has the responsibility and the power to demand higher standards from its contractors, and only purchase tobacco from contractors that ensure safe and healthy working conditions for its workers.

Though the shareholders’ resolution was defeated, the FLOC campaign against RJ Reynolds still maintains its goal of meeting with Ivey, and the ultimate adoption of a human rights policy that truly enforces human rights.

What you can do:

  • Write R.J. Reynolds CEO Susan Ivey and demand she meet with FLOC to discuss the plight of farmworkers.
  • Work with your student government to pass a resolution in support of FLOC’s campaign.