FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 4, 2016
CONTACT: Briana Kemp; firstname.lastname@example.org; 763-229-5970
HUNDREDS TO PROTEST AT REYNOLDS AMERICAN SHAREHOLDERS MEETING AFTER AUDIT EXPOSES CHILD LABOR, HAZARDOUS WORKING CONDITIONS, OTHER HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES ON CONTRACT FARMS
Winston Salem, NC- Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI) released its 2015 farm audit report yesterday, which evaluates contract farms on compliance with legal standards. Perhaps the most shocking part of the report was the documentation of several children under the age of 13 harvesting tobacco on Reynolds contract farms. The presence of child labor, which the company has denied for years, confirms what the farmworkers’ union, FLOC, has been telling the company since 2007: the tobacco industry is guilty of turning a blind eye to child labor, dangerous working conditions, and many other abuses for far too long.
After replacing disreputable auditing company Underwriter Laboratories with Footprint Benchmark, RAI found that 40% of farms employing minors were not complying with federal law, and that 16% of minors below age 16 were illegally performing hazardous work. Auditors also documented serious safety violations, such as improper safety equipment when working in the tobacco barns, and inadequate reporting of workplace accidents. Interviews with workers uncovered wage violations, noted that a percentage of the workers interviewed did not feel they could come and go as they please, and found that 25% of growers were not providing legally required documentation to workers, such as information on wage rates, transportation, and housing.
But even more shocking than what was uncovered by the audit is the information that was left out. Footprint Benchmark noted that the audit methodology was lacking in several areas, including failing to evaluate worker housing and announcing assessment meetings to growers ahead of time. The report also notes that “it was outside the scope of the assessment to ask workers about their working hours; access to toilets; experiences with green tobacco sickness; or feelings of fatigue or exhaustion after long workdays.” Furthermore, only 508 farmworkers on 373 farms were interviewed throughout the assessment process, an average of less than two workers per farm, and a small sample of the thousands of farmworkers on Reynolds farms.
Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), says he’s not surprised by the audit results. “We’ve been telling the company for eight years now that there are serious labor violations happening all over Southern tobacco fields, including on Reynolds farms. Imagine what the audits would have found if they were allowed to talk to more workers and ask more in depth questions about the workers’ experiences.” says Velasquez. “Rather than working with us to solve the issues, Reynolds has continuously denied that these conditions exist and has tried to sweep labor issues under the rug.”
FLOC has been calling on RAI to sign a Memorandum of Understanding which would guarantee freedom of association for farmworkers and establish a safe, effective grievance mechanism for workers to voice complaints when violations occur. Right now, there is nothing in US law to protect farmworkers who speak out from retaliation from a grower. “It happens all the time,” Velasquez notes. “Workers are living in a state of fear, because they know if they make their employer angry, there’s nothing to keep them from being fired on the spot or not rehired the following season. We just documented two cases in Eastern North Carolina where groups of farmworkers were blacklisted because they fought back against an employer who was stealing their wages. Now they’re stuck in Mexico this season with no work.”
FLOC and RAI have been in discussions through the Farm Labor Practices Group (FLPG), established in 2012 after years of pressure from farmworkers and allies to address labor conditions. The group also includes five other major tobacco companies and grower representatives. Unfortunately, the tobacco companies involved have refused to address the issue of freedom of association, and instead have implemented new training and education programs, all of which have had very little effect on field conditions.
“What farmworkers really need is a voice on the job,” says Sintia Castillo, former farmworker and now FLOC staff. “Laws, trainings, and posted signs don’t keep workers safe or keeps kids out of the fields. Only when workers themselves can come together to establish fair working conditions and monitor and report abuses ourselves without fear of retaliation will we see these problems disappear.”
FLOC will hold its eighth rally and march outside Reynolds American’s annual shareholders meeting this Thursday, May 5 at 10:00am. Farmworkers and allies from four states will hold a demonstration at Reynolds’ annual meeting to press the company to work with FLOC to guarantee freedom of association throughout the supply chain and eliminate human rights abuses in the tobacco fields.
Who: Farmworkers, students, labor leaders, religious leaders, allies from Ohio, NC, SC, and Florida
What: Demonstration at Reynolds American HQ followed by march through Winston Salem and rally
When and Where: Thursday, May 5, 10:00am picket at Reynolds American HQ 401 N Main Street; 11:30 rally and press conference at Winston Square Park 310 Marshall St N
Why: To call on Reynolds to be a leader in the industry by working with FLOC to guarantee freedom of association throughout the supply chain and eliminate human rights abuses in the tobacco fields.