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Published: Thursday, 4/3/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

MIGRANT CONDITIONS

Pair from Britain to visit North Carolina

Toledo FLOC leader Velasquez invites Parliament officials

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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Two members of Great Britain’s Parliament have accepted an invitation from Toledo-based farm-labor organizer Baldemar Velasquez to see how migrant workers are treated in North Carolina tobacco fields — a visit by foreign dignitaries that is rare, if not unprecedented, on U.S. soil.

Labor Party members Jim Sheridan and Ian Lavery notified Mr. Velasquez, president and founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, that they will meet him in Raleigh, N.C., on July 25 and accompany him on tours for the next three to five days for what has been described as a fact-finding mission on human rights.

The British Parliament has taken an interest in potential abuses of migrant workers employed by American tobacco companies because British American Tobacco owns 42 percent of tobacco giant Reynolds America Inc.

Mr. Velasquez said the visit could send a far-reaching message to companies invested in big tobacco as far away as Japan.

“As part of our global campaign, I think it will put pressure on Reynolds to do something,” Mr. Velasquez said. “It not only impacts their brand, but also their credibility.”

Reynolds did not respond to an interview request, but Maura Payne, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., provided two documents that she said speak to the company’s commitment to workers.

The first asserted Reynolds doesn’t directly employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco.

“Because farm workers are not our employees, we have no direct control over their sourcing, their training, their pay rates, or their housing and access to human services,” the statement said. “But we can — and do — bring significant efforts to bear to ensure that our suppliers have the training and resources they need to do the right thing for the people who play an important role in our supply chain. Significant efforts are already under way, and we are committed to continuing to play an appropriate role in this process.“

Ms. Payne also said Reynolds has twice donated to Telamon Corp., a nonprofit organization that strives to improve housing conditions on North Carolina’s tobacco farms.

Mr. Velasquez said he intends to invite U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and possibly other members of Congress to join the tour.

Miss Kaptur’s communications director, Steve Fought, said she considers Mr. Velasquez “unparalleled in worker rights and worker safety” and she would “most certainly” be part of the delegation.

The British Parliament recently introduced a resolution, signed by 19 of its members, stating that potential human-rights abuses in tobacco fields cannot be tolerated.

The resolution notes “onerous conditions faced by migrant farm workers in the tobacco fields of North Carolina and the American South, including exploitation, long hours, child labor, and other human rights abuses.”

It says Reynolds American Inc. is a major purchaser of tobacco grown in those fields, but hasn’t granted “freedom of association or worker representation” to those workers and that British American Tobacco “has a responsibility to ensure that its supply chain is free of human rights abuses and that FLOC’s proposals to [Reynolds American] can achieve that goal.”

The resolution urges British American Tobacco to “use its influence” with Reynolds to reach an agreement with FLOC.

It cites Oxfam America and FLOC as sources of information.

Mr. Velasquez said he is not aware of any other time in which foreign dignitaries have come to America to investigate potential human rights violations in this country, especially among farm workers.

“In the 46 years I’ve done this work, I’ve never heard of this,” the FLOC leader said. “It shocks the Brits to hear of substandard working conditions in the United States.”

Mr. Fought said he also was “unaware of any such visits” before in this country.

Human Rights Watch, which studies potential abuses internationally, was attempting Wednesday night to see if it could find documentation of any similar visits to the United States.

In a letter to British officials in December, Reynolds Vice President John S. Wilson III claimed FLOC is trying to force Reynolds into appointing it as the tobacco workers’ union. Mr. Wilson claimed that is a violation of North Carolina law.

Mr. Velasquez said he and representatives of some other unions are flying to London later this month to speak at British American Tobacco’s annual general meeting.

He said people “still don’t get the amount of squalor or poverty imposed on hard-working people.”

“On occasion, something comes before our eyes that shocks us into modern times,” Mr. Velasquez said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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