On August 15, student members of El Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlán traveled with USAS to Dudley, North Carolina to meet with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to learn about the tobacco industry and its relationship with the working and living conditions of the migrant farmworkers that work in the fields. When we arrived at the camps where the farmworkers were living, we discovered squalid living conditions that were potentially hazardous to their health and safety. Some of the most disturbing things we found included plywood dormitories with no windows, mattresses infested with ants and bedbugs, non-potable water in the kitchen sinks, rot and decay in the bathroom showers, and toilets without stalls. We also learned that one of the farmworkers living in these camps developed an infection that turned a slight cut on his foot into a festering wound, and is now risking an amputation that he would have to pay for and is likely to leave him unable to find work to support himself and his family.
When we went out into the tobacco fields, we learned that farmworkers have to work from sun up to sun down under temperatures over 100° F without any portable bathrooms for the farmworkers. Additionally, workers often work without adequate protection from the nicotine in the tobacco which could lead to nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, and severe weakness, symptoms of what is commonly referred to as Green Tobacco Sickness. To add insult to injury (quite literally), the meager wages these farmworkers earn are barely enough to support themselves and their families, a reflection of how much these workers and their labor are worth to those who hire them. Any complaints by the farmworkers regarding their working and living conditions are met with job termination, and even threats of deportation, leaving these workers with no recourse and nobody to hold accountable for this abhorrent exploitation.
You might be asking yourself (as we did) who could be responsible for exploitation of such magnitude. It turns out it was none other than RJ Reynolds and their parent company, Reynolds American Inc. RAI is a classic example of corporate greed at its finest/worst; it is the second-largest company in the US tobacco industry that continuously reports higher profits every quarter, pours money into campaigns to fight against taxing tobacco products and anti-smoking legislation, provides competitive compensation packages to its executive leadership, but treats the farmworkers that produce the company’s wealth as disposable commodities. In other words, RAI takes pride in putting profits over people.
This is unacceptable!
To demonstrate how upset we were to learn about RAI and the way it exploits its farmworkers, we participated in a delegation to the RAI headquarters inWinston-Salem, North Carolina, where we delivered a letter asking the CEO of RAI, Daniel M. Delen, to reevaluate the contracts they sign with tobacco growers and to work in good faith with FLOC to prioritize human rights and living wages for the farmworkers that harvest their crops. But before we could manage to speak with anyone from their leadership structure, we were asked to leave the premises and threatened with them calling the police. It was surprising how hostile they were to our presence, and evidence to their lack of accountability to the public with regards to the way they treat their workers. After a 30 minute call by one of the students in our group to talk to anyone in a leadership position, it was clear that there was no way for us or anyone in the public to inquire about these issues, much less demand that RAI take responsibility for their actions.
MEChistas and USASers who participated in this trip to North Carolina were stunned to learn that this kind of exploitation still exists in the US, and as two of the largest student run organizations in the country, we are now committed to stand in solidarity with FLOC and the farmworkers of Dudley, NC. We will use our purchasing power and our national network of students dedicated to fighting against sweatshop conditions domestically and internationally to compel RAI to improve the working and living conditions of its farmworkers, and to ensure that these workers earn a living wage to provide for themselves and their families. ¡SÍ, SE PUEDE!