Baldemar Velasquez, president of FLOC
Unions take US tobacco workers’ fight to Parliament
US farmworkers’ leader Baldemar Velasquez, the son of migrant farm labourers, was in London this week to defend the rights of workers picking tobacco leaf in North Carolina. Their conditions are reminiscent of those facing similar workers in developing countries, despite being in the heart of the richest country on Earth. Safety concerns – especially heatstroke and nicotine poisoning – and child labour are underpinned by the refusal of the tobacco companies to provide freedom of association – the right to join a union to fight for their rights.
Employers claim that the laws in North Carolina (which they helped create!) prohibit them from insisting on union and worker rights for people employed by small farmers. But this is an issue all the way up the supply chain, and therefore affects not only US tobacco company RJ Reynolds, but the London-based British America Tobacco (BAT), who buy tobacco from Reynolds and direct from the same sort of farms, and own a large chunk of Reynolds shares. So Baldemar went to see BAT while he was in London, and handed over a letter from Frances O’Grady and Len McCluskey, US union leader Rich Trumka and Ron Oswald of the global federation representing tobacco workers and others, the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), calling on them to clean up their supply chain and make sure US farmworkers get the same sort of union representation and rights that BAT workers in the UK do.
Baldemar, President of the Farm Labour Organising Committee (FLOC), addressed a briefing at the House of Commons and won the support of Labour MPs Jim Sheridan and Ian Lavery. Jim was instrumental in setting up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, so he’s no stranger to corporate responsibility and supply chains, and Ian chairs the trade union group of MPs. FLOC has worked with church groups, Oxfam US and Human Rights Watch to highlight the terrible conditions facing tobacco farm workers, many of whom have irregular immigration status which makes them even more vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
The TUC and Unite will continue to back FLOC’s campaign for justice for tobacco workers in the USA, especially through pressing BAT to take its responsibilities seriously.