EXPLORING INDUSTRY’S HIDDEN FACE

FLOC, British reps vow to fight for workers

Rights of tobacco workers focus of fact-finding mission

7/28/2014
BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez, left, speaks with a migrant worker, who agreed to be photographed but declined to be named, center, outside the cinder block building where he lives.
FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez, left, speaks with a migrant worker, who agreed to be photographed but declined to be named, center, outside the cinder block building where he lives.

RALEIGH — A Toledo-based union vowed to fight for tobacco field workers who live and labor largely hidden from view — an underground world of deep poverty and grim conditions that could soon face international scrutiny.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee on Sunday concluded the second day of a human rights fact-finding mission to North Carolina’s tobacco fields and migrant camps and gained a promise from two members of the British Parliament that they will share what they witnessed upon returning to the United Kingdom.

Labor Party members Ian Lavery, a tattooed former coal miner from northeast England, and Jim Sheridan, who worked in Glasgow shipyards before turning to politics, expressed outrage at the working and living conditions of many migrants.

“These aren’t even good enough to be prison blocks are they?” asked Mr. Lavery, as he toured a camp bathroom where unscreened showers and toilets afforded no privacy and a worker complained of bedbugs in the bedrooms.

PHOTO GALLERY: FLOC roundtable event

He and Mr. Sheridan pledged to take the fight for farm worker reforms to their home country. They plan to demand that British American Tobacco, the biggest shareholder of Reynolds American Inc., help improve how workers are treated in North Carolina. Reynolds is a major tobacco purchaser in the state that is a leading tobacco producer.

A sleeping area housing seven men is part of a migrant camp hidden from the nearby roadway by a line of thick trees. The camp was one stop during a tour given to highlight conditions in which migrant workers live.
A sleeping area housing seven men is part of a migrant camp hidden from the nearby roadway by a line of thick trees. The camp was one stop during a tour given to highlight conditions in which migrant workers live.

“For us the work is just beginning. We need to go back to the U.K. and explain and expose what’s going on,” Mr. Sheridan said.

FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez on Sunday took the group to see its second and third labor camps, both tucked out of sight.

He drove past rows of big houses on manicured, waterfront properties and turned down a gravel road. Hidden here, just a tenth of a mile from the affluent family neighborhood, stand two cinder-block buildings that house migrant workers.

The camp, located between Raleigh and Wilson, N.C., is obscured from public view. A tangle of trees blocks the barracks from passing motorists and an economic divide further separates the workers from those who are unaware. One man, who illegally crossed the United States border from Mexico in 2005 and asked not to be identified, showed the group the white envelopes in which he receives his pay — $7.25 an hour, cash.

Many who tend and harvest tobacco crops are undocumented and unseen. Another camp south of Raleigh also houses workers who entered the United States illegally. Pushed back from rural roads amid green fields, the long, squat building had air-conditioning units in several of the windows, a stove with four burners to serve eight workers, and an old basketball hoop outside.

The two British politicians described what they saw during a roundtable discussion attended by about 115 farm worker advocates, union members, and other supporters Sunday at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.

A migrant camp is set back behind a field outside Benson, N.C.  British Members of Parliament Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan toured the camps with FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. FLOC is campaigning to unionize tobacco laborers in North Carolina.
A migrant camp is set back behind a field outside Benson, N.C. British Members of Parliament Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan toured the camps with FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez. FLOC is campaigning to unionize tobacco laborers in North Carolina.

“It’s going to come to light, and when it comes to light, something is going to happen,” Mr. Velasquez told the audience. “I never plan for a victory, I plan for a fight.”

Union supporters plan to make Reynolds the next battleground, demanding that workers be free to assemble without fear of retaliation.

Reynolds officials refuse to be interviewed about farm labor issues and contend they do not control farm workers’ wages and housing because laborers are employed by growers, not the tobacco manufacturer.

Those at the Raleigh event embraced FLOC’s mission and focus on improving laborers’ lives.

“I support workers’ rights no matter where they are,” said Bryan Conlon of Raleigh, a union organizer with the American Federation of Government Employees. “When you hear stories like what our guests from the United Kingdom are able to articulate about people being … housed in facilities that you wouldn’t keep an animal … when you come face-to-face with that, it’s hard to deny.”

The Parliamentarians and Mr. Velasquez on Sunday also met with Erica Peterson, executive vice president of the North Carolina Agribusiness Council to talk about migrant worker issues. She would not allow a Blade reporter to listen to the discussion.

Handwritten payment slips, delivered to migrant workers, are examined during a tour of a migrant laborer camp on Sunday outside Raleigh, N.C. Many of the workers who tend and harvest tobacco crops are undocumented and unseen.
Handwritten payment slips, delivered to migrant workers, are examined during a tour of a migrant laborer camp on Sunday outside Raleigh, N.C. Many of the workers who tend and harvest tobacco crops are undocumented and unseen.

The day before, the delegation toured a trailer park used as migrant housing, visited a tobacco farm where the grower hires workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and attended a town hall forum during which laborers shared concerns about pesticide exposure, sexual exploitation, and other abuses.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) participated in Saturday’s activities but returned to Ohio before Sunday’s events.

Mr. Lavery and Mr. Sheridan will accompany Mr. Velasquez to Washington to meet this week with AFL-CIO leaders and discuss FLOC’s sign-up campaign to organize 5,000 tobacco field workers in North Carolina.

The fact-finding mission accomplished what FLOC wanted to do — documenting and showing the delegation the conditions faced by migrant laborers, Mr. Velasquez said.

“When these kinds of problems are out of sight and out of mind in the American public, it allows the abuses to persist and continue. It’s like ignoring an infection in a wound, it just gets worse and worse,” he said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.