UK Parliament hears of slavery risks in NC tobacco fields

Tobacco farmworker housing in eastern North Carolina. This photo is from "A Smokescreen for Slavery: Human Rights Abuses in UK Supply Chains" by the Trade Union Group of MPs.

The British House of Commons debated legislation today addressing human rights abuses in UK-based companies' supply chains, and North Carolina's tobacco fields came up as as an example of a workplace where modern-day slavery is a real risk.

Member of Parliament Ian Lavery spoke about the conditions he and fellow Labor Party MP James Sheridan witnessed during a July fact-finding mission to eastern North Carolina tobacco farms, which supply the British cigarette industry. Joined by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who wrote about the experience for The Nation, they were hosted by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an Ohio-based union that represents migrant workers in North Carolina and the Midwest.

The British lawmakers reported the findings of their mission last month in "A Smokescreen for Slavery: Human Rights Abuses in UK Supply Chains," which detailed problems on North Carolina tobacco farms, including human trafficking, squalid living conditions, a lack of drinking water in the fields, pesticide poisoning, and fear of retaliation for speaking up about poor conditions. The report was released by the Trade Union Group of MPs, for which Lavery serves as chair and Sheridan as vice chair. The visit, they said, left them wondering "how human beings could endure under these conditions without crushing the human spirit."

During today's debate Lavery described some of what they saw:

[T]he working conditions that we saw were absolutely atrocious, with unbelievably long hours of manual labour in unbearable heat; squalid living conditions, which mean workers have a lower quality of life than inmates in UK prisons; and employers showing a total disregard for basic health and safety regulations … which meant that many of them develop green tobacco sickness, an affliction with symptoms including nausea, intense headaches, vomiting and insomnia.

Parliament is considering the Modern Slavery Bill, which would require UK companies to monitor for slavery risks in their supply chains. London-based British American Tobacco (BAT) is a major customer and largest owner at 42 percent of Reynolds American Inc., a politically powerful North Carolina-based tobacco products company that contracts with growers in the state.

Lavery said BAT expressed sympathy with tobacco farmworkers in an October meeting with MPs but refused to proactively address concerns about human rights abuses. Lavery also said BAT has refused to use its influence over Reynolds American to encourage the company to sign an agreement with FLOC guaranteeing workers on its contract farms basic human rights, including freedom of association in order to take collective action to improve conditions.

"I welcome the support of these MPs who want to make BAT accountable for the conditions on the farms in their supply chains," FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez said.

Video of the debate is available online here.