US farmworker union shows Labour MPs the ‘harvest of shame’ in North Carolina
It’s been three years since I joined the campaign for union rights, justice and respect for North Carolina’s mostly migrant tobacco farmworkers, run by the US Farm Labor Organising Committee (FLOC). FLOC’s charismatic leader Baldemar Velasquez – himself the son of Mexican migrant labourers – has assembled an impressive coalition of unions here and in the US, along with Oxfam, churches and students. In December, Labour MPs Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan helped FLOC take their case to Parliament, and ten days ago FLOC took them to North Carolina to see the tobacco fields – and the conditions faced by the workers – themselves, along with US Congresswoman Marcy Kapfur from Ohio.
Ian chairs the trade union group of MPs and arrived in the USA straight from a Justice for Colombia delegation that Paul Nowak has already reported on. Jim was the MP who steered the Gangmasters Licensing Act through Parliament. So they know the exploitation vulnerable workers suffer. But both MPs were so concerned about what they saw that they broke down in tears several times.
This wasn’t just a delegation to see what goes on in a foreign country with worse trade union and workplace standards than our own (albeit in the richest country on the planet.) Lavery and Sheridan were going to see for themselves the conditions under which tobacco is harvested for cigarettes made by British American Tobacco (BAT), and the US firm of which it is the largest shareholder, RJ Reynolds. The MPs’ visit led to masses of publicity for the campaign in the USA, and they will be telling their fellow parliamentarians about what they saw, and taking the matter up with the company, headquartered just down the Thames from the House of Commons. (Jim Sheridan also took their experiences back to Washington DC to tell the AFLCIO organising committee, which has sent student interns into the North Carolina tobacco fields on an organising drive this summer.)
Congresswoman Kapfur wrote of the visit that the politicians:
“found workers who labor eleven hours a day under grueling conditions at high season for $7.25 (£4.30) an hour. As many as twelve men sleep jammed inside ramshackle, dilapidated trailers or barracks. There is no hot water, no decent laundry facilities, no air-conditioning, substandard electrical and gas wiring, and flush toilets are a luxury. I saw injured workers, including one man who had lost part of his index finger in a work accident, who lacked basic protections and health care. I heard women testify of the sexual abuse they face to secure work and pay, but still they and their children live in squalor in the richest nation in the world.”
The MPs saw the terrible conditions farm laborers live in. “These aren’t even good enough to be prison blocks are they?” asked Ian, as he toured a camp bathroom where unscreened showers and toilets afforded no privacy and a worker complained of bedbugs in the bedrooms. And they were briefed on the violence and intimidation meted out to union organisers. At a meeting with laborers in a FLOC community hall, they heard more stories of abuse and exploitation:
“One such testimony came from a young woman who courageously stood up and told her story. A new mother with a baby in her arms, she has been spending the summer months trying to earn enough money to feed her family in the fields of North Carolina. Yet the labor contractor she works for, the man who wields power over her having the chance to feed her children, asks for sexual favors in return for the very opportunity to work. If denied, he simply finds a labor source elsewhere.”
Ian Lavery told the farm laborers he met:
“Your demands are meek. Decent safety and housing. Decent wages, terms and conditions. These are basic human rights!”