North Carolina is one of the leading agricultural states in the country, bringing in billions of dollars each year. All of us have been nourished by the fruit of farm labor.
Yet what are the conditions faced by these essential men and women who pick the food that we eat? A woman who has worked as a farmworker for over a decade told me her story.
She traveled to the U.S. from Mexico as a single mother to find work and a better life for her children. She told me that in migrant farmworker camps in Georgia and in North Carolina, people were often packed into small trailers with no air conditioning, water or light.
She has also experienced wage theft at the hands of farm labor contractors, employed by some growers to bring migrant farmworkers to the fields.
Many farmworkers work 12-hour shifts, several days a week, yet according to the North Carolina Farmworker Institute, the percentage of farmworker families living in poverty is “nearly double that of other working families in the U.S.”
In the hopes of improving the conditions for farmworkers in North Carolina, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee is currently working on a campaign to put pressure on North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the second-largest tobacco company in the United States, to support the rights of farmworkers.
The campaign stems from the belief that corporations, like Reynolds Tobacco, which reap the benefits of farmworker labor, should also be held accountable for the conditions workers experience.
According to Farm Labor Organizing Committee organizer Ana Maria Reichenbach, “If powerful companies like Reynolds publicly stated they would only buy from growers who guarantee worker rights, the growers would cooperate.”
The Reynolds campaign hits close to home: UNC farmworker solidarity group Alianza is currently circulating a petition calling for David Powers, a key lobbyist for Reynolds Tobacco, to resign from his position on the UNC Board of Governors.
According to Alianza student organizer Madeline Miller, in conversations with Powers, “He has often explained that his private responsibilities outside of the University don’t have an impact on his position inside of the University.”
However, Miller does not think it is that simple to separate the two roles. She pointed out that the UNC mission statement says the UNC system is “dedicated to the service of North Carolina and its people.” Miller believes University leaders should be held morally accountable.
In order to truly work toward long-term justice for farmworkers, worker voices need to be respected and valued by business leaders and workers should be allowed the right to negotiate directly with their employers.
“The only way conditions are going to really change is when workers actually have a say in the way they are treated in the fields; collective bargaining is the tool that gives them the power to do that,” Reichenbach said.
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