Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Tobacco's Other Victims
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Ideally, tobacco should be outlawed. But as long as people continue to usethe deadly stuff, those who harvest it for the great profit of tobaccocompanies deserve far better than the miserable pay and working conditionsimposed on them.

"Miserable" is not an exaggeration. Consider North Carolina, the country'sleading tobacco producer. The state's $500 million-a-year crop is harvestedby more than 25,000 workers, most of them Mexican immigrants. Some aredocumented "guest workers," some undocumented. Some are as young as 12, asstate law allows.

The harvesters make at most about $7 an hour or about $7,100 a year fordangerous, back-breaking work and most work for growers who do not providehealth care benefits and are exempt from the law that requires WorkersCompensation payments for employees who are hurt on the job.

Thousands of the workers are afflicted yearly with "green tobacco sickness"caused by overexposure to the highly toxic nicotine in tobacco leaves thatis absorbed into their bodies. Symptoms often last for several days.Victims may feel a general weakness or shortness of breath, for instance,headaches, vomiting, dizziness, cramps, heightened blood pressure orspeeded- up heart rates. At the least, they break out in rashes.

The nicotine also raises workers' body temperature, already high because ofthe southern heat in which they work, even higher - sometimes to the pointof causing life-threatening dehydration and heat strokes.

Yet many workers get little or no medical attention. They're lucky if theyeven get rest breaks during their working hours.

Living conditions are generally as bad as the working conditions. Most ofthe workers live in crowded, dilapidated, frequently rodent-infested shacksin labor camps or in broken-down trailers, many without so much as a fan tocool the stifling summer air and most near fields that are regularly sprayedwith dangerous pesticides.

Workers who dare complain about their working or living conditions face theprospect of being fired or turned over to government authorities fordeportation.

But there's finally hope for change, thanks to the Farm Labor OrganizingCommittee (FLOC), an AFL-CIO affiliate that has helped thousands of workerswin agreements from employers in several states to raise their pay andbenefits and otherwise treat them decently. That includes some 7,000farmworkers who harvest other North Carolina crops for pay at least $2 anhour higher than the tobacco workers get.

Backed by an array of community and religious groups including the NationalCouncil of Churches, FLOC has launched a drive to win agreements fromtobacco growers, primarily through pressures on one of the largest and mostinfluential of the tobacco companies that buy their crops. That's RJReynolds, whose eight brands account for one of every three cigarettes soldin this country. As FLOC notes, Reynolds continues to make billions whilethose who pick the tobacco that goes into its products live "in abjectpoverty."

Reynolds' officials have so far refused even to meet with FLOCrepresentatives to discuss the union's demand that tobacco workers begranted union rights and an agreement that would recognize "their need fordignity, respect and safe working conditions."

Reynolds asserts that it should not deal with the union or other workerrepresentatives because the tobacco workers are not employed by the company.They work for the growers who sell the tobacco they pick to Reynolds andother companies, which set the price and thus determine how much the growerscan afford to pay the workers.

But as FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez notes: "The farmers don't controlthe system. Those companies control the money, and they benefit the mostfrom the stoop labor of these workers. We're saying, 'Hey, you need to ownup to the situation that you're implicated in.'"

And if they don't own up?

Velasquez points to the union's five-year-long boycott that finally forcedanother major North Carolina corporation, the Mount Olive Pickle Co., toraise the price it pays growers for cucumbers in order to finance higher payfor their workers and to allow union organizers into their labor camps.Velasquez also mentioned the possibility of union demonstrations at meetingsof Reynolds' shareholders' and actions against companies that Reynolds doesbusiness with.

The fight for tobacco workers will continue, in any case, "until Reynoldscommits to joining us in addressing this national shame ... the deplorablecondition of the tobacco workforce that remains voiceless, powerless andinvisible to mainstream America."

Copyright (c) Dick Meister