Speaking up for North Carolina's tobacco pickers

By Mary Babic
Migrant farmworker housing on a tobacco farm in North Carolina. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

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You wake up at 5 a.m., on a thin mattress in a dim and crowded room, and go to the kitchen building to make some breakfast. Then you head to the tobacco fields, pulling on the trash bag that serves as your one layer of protection.

The fields will be wet with morning dew, and, for the next few hours, said Raúl Jiménez, an organizer for FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) and a former farm worker, “you’re soaking wet, drenched in all these chemicals.”

Not just the chemicals on “the most pesticide-treated plants in the nation,” as Jiménez put it in an interview last month, but also the nicotine in the plants themselves. “You’re always exposed to it, you breathe it in, you touch it,” he said. The odds are good that at some point you’ll come down with Green Tobacco Sickness, which is caused by a high level of nicotine absorption through the skin. (Short term effects include dizziness, nausea, and dehydration – “so bad you think you’re gonna die.”)

You could wear gloves, but that would impede your ability to pluck the leaves from the bottom of the plants. You’re out there nurturing the plants by hand, rather than machine, in order to produce the highest-quality harvest, which brings a higher price for the grower. You bend over all day long, breaking off the leaves on the bottom, stashing them under your arm, leaving the top leaves to flourish.

“Your hands get black from the tar,” says Jiménez. Although regulations require wash stations (and bathrooms and drinking water) they are rare. “You have to be real careful not to touch anything.”

Tobacco plants flourish in the heat and humidity in North Carolina, which means that you are out there, too, in temperatures often above 100 degrees. Over the years several workers have died of heat stroke.

At the end of this day, you’ll go back to the “labor camp,” where toilets are lined up without partitions next to each other in a big room with sinks on the other side; where windows are few and small and have no glass; where you may have a mattress in a room with several other men – or you may sleep on the floor.

But the worst thing in all this long day is that, much of the time, you’re afraid – of deportation, of unemployment, of the crew leader, of letting down your family back in Mexico, or Guatemala – and you have no idea of your rights or your recourses.

A step forward for workers in 2012

In 2011, Oxfam America partnered with FLOC to research and publish the State of Fear report on human rights abuses in the North Carolina tobacco industry. This report has played a crucial role in recent efforts to raise the voices of farmworkers, and to get Reynolds Tobacco to engage in conversation with FLOC.

Following Oxfam’s request to supporters—in which more than 14,000 people called on Reynolds to meet with farmworkers—the company held its first face-to-face meeting with FLOC in 2012.

This was a huge step, but it’s just the beginning of the march toward real change and real justice in the fields. FLOC and partners want to keep up the pressure on Reynolds, and on some of the major chains that carry their products.

To honor International Human Rights Day, December 10, hundreds joined actions at Kangaroo stores in various cities in North Carolina to urge them to reach out to Reynolds about conditions in the fields. Kangaroo, the largest convenience store chain in the Southeast, could make a difference in the lives of thousands of tobacco farm workers.