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Exposing the "State of Fear" in NC Tobacco Fields

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Oxfam America reports shocking human rights abuses

Click here to read the Oxfam America report, "A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina's tobacco industry" (opens PDF).

From 2010 to 2011, Oxfam America and FLOC conducted face-to-face interviews with tobacco stakeholders, including farmworkers, growers, and cigarette makers. Of the companies Oxfam contacted, only Philip Morris participated in the study.

The summary report released May 5, 2011 by Oxfam and FLOC details widespread human rights abuses:

Interviews revealed that farmworkers endure frequent
violations of both internationally recognized human rights and state and federal laws that should protect them. The
study identified human rights violations in several areas.

The human rights abuses reported in North Carolina tobacco fields include:

  • Lack of just and favorable working conditions. One in four tobacco farmworkers reported being paid less than the minimum wage. A majority of workers reported suffering from green-tobacco sickness (caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin), heat stroke, and exposure to pesticides while in the fields.
  • Lack of adequate housing. Nearly all workers reported living in squalid employer-provided housing that often lacked working toilets or showers, overcrowding, not having beds to sleep on, insect and rodent infestations, and inadequate cooking facilities.
  • Lack of freedom of association. Only 1 in 10 workers have H-2A visas and are covered by the collective bargaining agreement between FLOC and the NC Growers' Association. Many of the other workers fear incarceration or deportation if they speak up about problems.

This behavior tarnishes the reputation of not only Reynolds American but British American Tobacco. That BAT has agreed to discussions with FLOC is itself a major victory. But the battle for justice in North Carolina's tobacco fields will only be won when Reynolds American drops its charade of plausible deniability and accepts its responsibility to ensure the golden leaves that fill its coffers are not stained with the blood and tears of human beings.