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Published: Tuesday, 12/10/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Union to wage tobacco fight in England

BY FEDERICO MARTINEZ
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.
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Local union leader Baldemar Velasquez is taking his ongoing fight with American and British tobacco giants to the British Parliament in London.

Mr. Velasquez, president and founder of Toledo’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, will address Parliament and various labor organizations Thursday and tell them about his organization’s struggle to get tobacco companies to address human rights violations such as human trafficking, forcing their employees to live in squalid housing conditions, and abusing employees who live their lives in fear because they have no recourse.

“The tobacco companies have looked the other way for years,” Mr. Velasquez said. “We hope by creating some public scrutiny at what is going on it might cause some movement.”

The visit is being organized by the Trades Union Congress, Unite the Union, and the IUF, a global union federation that unites food, farm, and hotel workers nationwide and focuses on the conditions of farm workers who make up a critical part of British American Tobacco’s supply chain, said Mike Gillis, the AFL-CIO’s communications director in Ohio. British American Tobacco owns more than 42 percent of Reynolds American Inc. and is that tobacco company’s major stockholder.

The British are well-known for implementing and supporting strict rules and guidelines that protect workers rights and well-being, Mr. Velasquez said.

“They are very compliant,” Mr. Velasquez said.

The goal is to get British American Tobacco to use its “substantial influence” to persuade Reynolds American Inc. to develop a written agreement with FLOC that guarantees freedom of association and worker representation for migrant workers on Reynolds’ contract farms. They want to ensure that respect for human rights in the tobacco fields of North Carolina is being enforced, he said.

Mr. Velasquez will be joined by Ron Oswald, General Secretary for the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Association.

Mr. Oswald will discuss the background of contacts with British American Tobacco concerning the issues raised by Mr. Velasquez.

Unite National Officer Rhys McCarthy will outline steps that can be taken to help British American Tobacco address worker concerns. Two years ago, Mr. Velasquez visited Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, and successfully lobbied officials there to put pressure on Reynolds to begin meeting with FLOC.

Those negotiations have fizzled. Reynolds officials say they are powerless to address the problems because the tobacco farms are contracted to independent contractors, who recruit their own employees, decide whether workers can unionize, and have the responsibility to follow up on any grievances and to provide adequate housing.

Contact Federico Martinez at: fmartinez@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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