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The plight of tobacco workers in North Carolina is to be discussed in Parliament today (Thursday) as an American union brings its protest about harsh working conditions and poverty wages to London in an attempt to put pressure on parent company British American Tobacco (BAT).

For many years the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has been urging Reynolds American Inc (RAI) to improve the way it treats its mostly migrant workers. But despite company claims that it doesn’t exploit anyone, managers at the company still refuse to talk to the union.

In an attempt to force RAI to raise its game and work with FLOC to give the tobacco workers a better deal, Baldemar Velasquez, the union’s president, is flying into London to brief MPs and raise the issue with BAT, which has a 42 per stake in the American company.

At the event in Westminster later this morning – organised by the TUC, Unite and the IUF (a federation of unions representing farm, food and hotel workers across the globe) – MPs will hear about the poor conditions in which the farm workers are forced to live. They will also learn about the nicotine poisoning and exposure to dangerous pesticides which can make the workers extremely ill and the long hours they work at poverty rates of pay.

Having spoken to MPs, Baldemar will make the short journey along the Victoria Embankment to the headquarters of BAT, where the group will hand in a letter to BAT Chairman Richard Burrows urging him to get involved.

In the letter, signed by TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady and her US equivalent Rich Trumka of the AFL-CIO, the unions call on BAT to ensure that workers in all its supply chains around the world are well-treated, and urge the company to encourage its US subsidiary to start talking seriously to FLOC.

As part of its campaign to secure a better deal for the tobacco workers, FLOC has secured the support of religious leaders from across the US, some 200 of whom signed a letter to RAI President Daniel Delen earlier this year calling on the company to engage with the union.

Commenting on the events in the capital, Frances O’Grady said: “Reynolds American Inc may claim it treats its workers well but the tobacco workers employed on its farms beg to differ. Forced to live in squalid conditions, working with hazardous substances, and being paid next to nothing for their efforts, their lot is not a happy one.

“Bringing the plight of the workers from North Carolina across the Atlantic to London will hopefully convince British American Tobacco that it can no longer ignore what its US subsidiary gets up to. We want to see BAT acknowledge that all tobacco workers in its supply chains – no matter where in the world they are employed – are treated well, and work reasonable hours for decent rates of pay.”

FLOC President Baldemar Velasquez said: “The living and working conditions on tobacco farms are often deplorable. Reynolds American claims that it ensures acceptable conditions on its supplier farms, but we believe that independent worker representation is the only way to sustain real improvements and full respect for worker rights.

“FLOC has a serious proposal to address rights and conditions on tobacco farms and BAT should play its role in making sure Reynolds and other tobacco companies engage with us about the workers’ concerns.”

At the Westminster event – which takes place at 10.45am – Baldemar Velasquez will share his first-hand knowledge of working conditions on the tobacco farms and explain how his union is trying to get RAI around the table to discuss improving pay and working conditions.

MPs will also hear from IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald and Unite National Officer Rhys McCarthy who will set out what the UK union plans to do to encourage BAT to take the issue of the North Carolina farm workers more seriously.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

- The tobacco briefing takes place in Committee Room 16 in the House of Commons on Thursday 12 December. It starts at 10.45am and is expected to be over by noon.

- A delegation led by Baldemar Velasquez will then head to BAT headquarters (4 Temple Place, London WC2R 2PG) to hand in the letter to Chairman Richard Burrows at around 2pm.

- If you would like to attend the briefing or photo opportunity outside BAT HQ please contact the TUC press office.

- Baldemar is in the UK until the weekend and is available for interview.

Contacts:

Media enquiries:
Liz Chinchen   T: 020 7467 1248    M: 07778 158175    E: media@tuc.org.uk
Rob Holdsworth    T: 020 7467 1372    M: 07717 531150     E: rholdsworth@tuc.org.uk