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Tobacco firms agree to discuss farm workers’ rights

Tobacco firms agree
A long-sought meeting of the minds on tobacco farm worker conditions has been agreed to by advocacy groups and several large tobacco manufacturers, including Reynolds American Inc.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee said Wednesday that a council is being formed that includes tobacco growers in North Carolina, the state Labor Department and agricultural scientists.

According to the N.C. Growers Association, FLOC represents about 2,000 farm workers in North Carolina. The multiparty approach was also promoted by Oxfam America in its recent report on the stark conditions facing some workers on N.C. tobacco farms.

Reynolds’ shareholders meetings have been antagonistic at times because groups protesting the company’s policies typically buy shares so they can speak to management. Its 2012 shareholders meeting will be held May 3.

Reynolds said it still stands behind a stance that since farm workers are employed by growers, not the company, it does not play a negotiating role.

Still, Thomas Wajnert, chairman of Reynolds, said in May 2011 that the company “understands the concerns to move quickly” on addressing worker conditions.

The committee will focus on such issues as freedom of association without fear of retaliation, wages, housing and forced labor, among other supply chain inequities.

FLOC began requesting a meeting with the manufacturers in 2007. Reynolds agreed to support a committee at its 2011 shareholders meeting.

FLOC has claimed problems at the tobacco farms including sub-minimum wages, child labor, heat stroke, pesticide and nicotine poisoning, green tobacco sickness, lack of water and breaks during work, and fatalities.

Reynolds spokeswoman Maura Payne said the company “believes the establishment of such a council is a significant step toward identifying potentially constructive solutions to farm labor issues in the U.S. agricultural supply chain.

“A collaborative process has the potential to identify constructive ideas on improving farm labor working and living conditions.

The reasoning: Without having regulatory and enforcement officials at the table, there may be no effective oversight of the standards on which the groups agree and no real legal consequences if growers don’t adhere to the standards.

“We will continue to press each of the companies to meet with FLOC individually,” Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC’s founder and president, said in a statement.

“This campaign will continue until Reynolds comes to an agreement with FLOC guaranteeing the right to freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively for all farm workers in their supply chain.”

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