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Report details plight of North Carolina's tobacco workers 

Children of farmworkers play in the dusty backyard of a Wilson County labor camp, where their family lives in bunks with other workers.

Photo by Victoria Bouloubasis

Children of farmworkers play in the dusty backyard of a Wilson County labor camp, where their family lives in bunks with other workers.

A stagnant breeze on a humid July evening in Wilson County nudges plush rows of tobacco leaves. Near the field, an old barn carves a silhouette into the horizon as the sun sets. The neighboring view, just a few yards away, is strikingly different. Farmworkers who squat and bend to pick those leaves in the peak of summer heat sit wearily on makeshift stoops. They live in units made of concrete and covered in peeling paint. From afar, these homes can be mistaken for animal stables.

Flies swarm through the torn screen windows on each bunk's door. Each unit houses three to four farmworkers. In one lives a young couple with their three children. The 24-year-old mother says her husband is the sole provider, earning minimum wage picking tobacco and other crops. The oldest kids, ages 3 and 4, chase each other with toy water guns, barefoot on the dusty ground, while she watches for broken glass and gazes at the tobacco fields on the perimeter.

The workers at this camp are predominantly undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and other parts of Central America, many of whom are among 103 farmworkers interviewed last year for a report released in September by Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). "A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina's tobacco industry" unveils detailed claims of exploitation and mistreatment of undocumented workers in tobacco fields throughout the state. As for state regulators, their efforts have failed to significantly curb the abuses, farmworker advocates say, while the tobacco companies have not adequately addressed the issues with their growers.

"We found shocking pieces in all of those different categories. We've seen some pretty bad conditions, but this was the first time that we were able to really take an in-depth, personal look and hear from the workers in a very detailed way about a lot of the abuses," says FLOC representative Briana Connors, who helped write the report and conduct 86 farmworker interviews.

In another Wilson County camp, I spoke with a group of teenage workers from Guatemala. The young men opened a flimsy wooden door to reveal a cramped, flea-infested space with unfinished particleboard flooring and old mattresses void of sheets, bedding or pillows, their corners black with mold. According to the report, when some workers complained about bedbugs, their growers allegedly told them to buy Clorox and bleach their mattresses, or to spray the mattresses, and themselves, with Raid.

Similar complaints were filed with the North Carolina Department of Labor (DOL), according to farmworker accounts in the report, which stated the agency initially investigated them but did not follow up.

In 2010, the Agricultural Safety & Health Bureau (ASH), a division of the state DOL, conducted 1,349 inspections of migrant camps. In 2011, ASH has conducted 1,376.

"Any farmers who are providing migrant housing will get inspected before the migrants arrive," said DOL spokesman Neal O'Briant. "In terms of field sanitation, those are general inspections and are random."

O'Briant said that the DOL has adopted the federal Field Sanitation Standard, which is listed on the department's website. ASH addresses all farmworker complaints and "all complaints filed with our offices are addressed," O'Briant added. Growers must send a list of changes, or abatements, to the DOL or the camp cannot be certified. "If there are a number of abatements to be made, a compliance visit (with potential for citations and penalties) may be conducted," O'Briant wrote in an email.

There are currently six labor camp inspectors, each of whom visits about 200 sites once a year, before occupancy. In addition, the bureau conducts about 75 compliance inspections annually, O'Briant said. In 2010, about a third of those, 22, were prompted by complaints.

In spite of the dozens of unsanitary conditions documented in the report, Connors, the FLOC representative, confirmed that the group filed only two official complaints last year—one because of a bug-infested mattress and the other about a camp that was "believed to be unregistered. It was not ever inspected, but people were living there."

The reason for the scarcity of official complaints, Connors said, is that workers are reluctant to file them. "The communication piece is a huge barrier. The complaint system is not accessible to workers," she said. "Second, fear is a huge factor, especially among undocumented workers. They are very afraid of contacting any government agency. Most feel like it would jeopardize their job, housing and possibly lead to deportation."

While the DOL and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company both reiterated that workers can file complaints using an anonymous online form or by calling the DOL, Connors pointed out that workers are in the field during business hours and do not have access to the Internet. She also said the workers don't leave messages with labor officials because most do not have phone numbers for anyone to call them back.

Unsanitary conditions are the most common complaint. I saw a bathroom at a Wilson County camp where there were rows of rusted, grimy toilet bowls without stalls and many without seats. Only one of three sinks worked that day. No paper towels were visible and a scant amount of toilet paper was available.

Angry messages had been written in Spanish on the walls, apparently by the workers, pleading for people to clean up after themselves and to use a working toilet. The dimly lit kitchen was bug-infested, with cracked walls, windows and floors and barely usable stovetop burners. One wall displayed outdated, sun-bleached regulations from the N.C. departments of labor and agriculture, most of them in English. No clean drinking water was visible.

The young Guatemalan workers told me they never made a formal complaint. They also recounted incidents of vomiting in the tobacco field and said that instead of being given medicine for their symptoms, growers merely switched them to another crop. The men stay because they want to keep their jobs, stating that Guatemala is too dangerous and that their families back home depend on their earnings.

Similar stories are highlighted in the report's interviews, in which seasoned workers in their third or fourth year allege they had hostile encounters with their bosses after making complaints.

In addition to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, farmworkers are also concerned about pesticide-related illness and green tobacco sickness, a nicotine poisoning caused by handling wet tobacco leaves. Jose Gonzalez Sandoval, a farmworker in Kenly, said he became dizzy and developed a stomachache after exposure to the leaves. He said he reported it to his direct boss, the grower, and was told to keep working. He was ill for two more days and stayed in his bunk instead. A union member, Sandoval called FLOC for help and was taken to a doctor. He said FLOC paid for the medical bills and hospital stay, which he said totaled about $1,200, as well as helped him obtain paid sick leave.

"They treat us better now that the union is there. We can take breaks for water," Sandoval said. "It's important that people read this report so they know of the injustices we are facing and they can help us in the fight against the tobacco industry."

FLOC holds the entire tobacco industry accountable for the poor treatment of migrant workers and the contract growers. The report includes stories of growers—direct employees of the tobacco companies—who said they are paid poorly or lack the resources to deal with workers' complaints.

FLOC and Oxfam contacted 10 tobacco companies for the report. Only two complied: Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International. RJR refused to participate.

"Private industry has a role to play in ensuring that human rights violations do not occur. Not only were the workers getting the short end of the stick, but so were growers," said Irit Tamir, senior advocacy and collaborations adviser for Oxfam America. The nonprofit has helped fund FLOC's campaign against RJR.

"Those at the top of the supply chain are making enormous profit, and those at the bottom are not getting their fair share," Tamir said. "We can't expect the growers to provide good housing, good working conditions, proper equipment, good wages, allow for sick days if they are barely able to eke out a living with the money coming back down to them."

In speaking with the Indy, David Howard, senior director of communications at RJR, declined to disclose the number of contract growers the company hires in North Carolina, saying that information is proprietary. He said that RJR has "several hundred" growers throughout the U.S.

In reference to the FLOC report, Howard said RJR may look through it, but the company is "not going to comment on this specifically now."

"We continue to believe that no company has done more than R.J. Reynolds Tobacco to improve farmworker safety, not only in N.C. but in other states as well, where we have contract growers," Howard said. "Some of the tangible things we have done currently to foster and improve living conditions on the farm is that all are required to participate in a comprehensive training program that is conducted by the cooperative extension service. Every contract grower for R.J. Reynolds has complete, good agricultural standing this year."

According to Howard, the on-farm audit program initiated this year includes "an independent third party on farms to make sure issues are addressed" and requires that business is "conducted efficiently and abiding by all rules, regulations and laws."

The audit program includes bilingual DVDs about farm hazards and an open letter to FLOC on the company's website detailing this training. O'Briant verified that the DOL will issue a new Spanish-language DVD with English subtitles by December; it will focus on housing safety and sanitation, including interviews with farmworkers and contract growers.

Howard said RJR holds a yearly "multi-stakeholder council to discuss farm labor issues." Yet farmworkers are not invited to these meetings. When asked why, Howard replied: "Farmworkers are not employees of R.J. Reynolds. At those meetings we go over very important topics, federal and state laws. We make it very clear that contract growers are required to abide by all laws."

He added: "We work with the N.C. Department of Labor, which is really the enforcement arm of this matter. To date, we aren't aware of any violation of R.J. Reynolds contract growers."

"Of course farmworkers are stakeholders," counters Connors. "They pick the leaves that Reynolds uses in their cigarettes. I would argue that farmworkers are the most important stakeholders in the supply chain—their sweat and labor. Who would harvest the product that makes Reynolds and its executives billions of dollars each year? Morally they are obligated to be a part of the solution. Without farmworkers their company would not exist, and it's time that they give farmworkers the respect that they deserve. That has been our only request since the beginning of this campaign—that Reynolds sit down with us and talk."

Tamir of Oxfam America believes the broken agricultural system is a result of the industry contracts with growers and the exploitation of undocumented workers.

"By virtue of the way contracts are made for growers, turning the blind eye, they're helping to create the system. A grower has no incentive to do it a legal way. If you hire an undocumented worker, you can pay them less, your housing is less likely to get inspected. The folks who play by the rules are the ones who are actually scrutinized more. We're encouraging growers to go under the radar, workers to stay under the radar.

"Our policymakers have failed us in terms of providing a system that workers can come and do this work in a legal way," she continued. "When it's not tobacco season, these same workers are working on sweet potatoes and cucumbers, they're working on our food. It's gotten politicized and it doesn't need to be. There are not enough Americans to pick these crops. We have to find a way for workers to come and work here without fear."

Correction (Nov. 10, 2011): A team of people from both Oxfam and FLOC were involved in the writing and editing of the report; Briana Connors was not the sole author of the report.

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