We joined a diverse delegation of 25 activists, students, labor and community leaders and traveled to farm labor camps in Dudley, N.C.., to witness firsthand the appalling and abusive conditions of tobacco farm workers.
Our journey began with a visit to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), where we learned about a recent report, “State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry,” that brings light to the tobacco industry’s impact on the human rights of farmworkers in the fields of North Carolina. Issued jointly by FLOC and Oxfam America, the report presented human right violations that we would later witness.
We drove 40 minutes into the country to visit labor camps where farmworkers live while they harvest tobacco to supply companies like RJ Reynolds, one of the richest corporations in U.S. agriculture—in fact, one of the largest tobacco corporations in the world, with annual profits of over $2 billion.
We what saw was never to be imagined. When the workday ends, farm workers—men, women and children—returned to grim camps, often overcrowded shacks once considered chicken coops and horse stables. They are housed in conditions that clearly violate internationally recognized living standards.
We saw mattresses that are dirty, wet from the leaky roof, or missing entirely. Workers shared stories about infestations of bedbugs, roaches and other vermin. We saw nonfunctional showers and toilets. With lack of ventilation, workers sleep in overcrowded rooms. Kitchens and access to healthy, nourishing food is non-existent. Workers endure these inhumane conditions out of fear of losing the jobs they desperately need to provide for their families—jobs with sub-poverty wages that threaten their lives on a daily basis.
It’s an appalling reality. The climate of fear is perpetuated by the tobacco industry which exploits the farmworkers, forcing them to live under conditions that no one should have to bear and denying them a voice in making changes.
Despite the odds, workers are joining together to form a union. Says FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez:
The job of unions is to organize the unorganized. Workers are workers regardless of documented status. Workers deserve to have rights; they deserve working visas with labor rights and justice. Once workers see and feel justice, a fire is ignited that cannot and will not be extinguished it.
Our delegation represented a dozen progressive labor and community organizations including the AFL-CIO, two AFL-CIO constituency groups, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute (APRI) and the Hispanic National Bar Association and Duke University.