During 2010 and 2011, Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) interviewed 103 migrant farm workers in North Carolina and representatives from two tobacco companies to learn what conditions are like in an industry dependent on foreign labor. A recently released report (pdf) reveals that what they found was devastating.
Living in fear of deporatation, employer retaliation, and insurmountable debt to recruiters and smugglers, many of the workers reported conditions that amount to domestic and international human rights violations.
In North Carolina, approximately 1 in 10 agricultural workers has a temporary agricultural worker visa (an H-2A), leaving most with no legal recourse when situations put them in danger.
Here are just a few of the problems Oxfam reported:
Earning a Non-Livable Wage
Of the 89 farm workers interviewed about their wages, one-fourth reported their wage was below the national minimum wage ($7.25/hour). Fifty-seven people said the wage they made was not enough to meet their basic needs.
Miserable Working Conditions
Workers reported having improper gear, stating that employers failed to provide gloves and protective clothing. The majority mentioned symptoms that are common of acute nicotine poisoning, characterized by vomiting, nosebleeds, headaches, and coughing. Many reported insufficient breaks and unclean drinking water, and some reported working in the fields as pesticides were being applied to crops.
By most accounts, workers reported unsanitary and dysfunctional living situations. Insects and rodents plague the sleeping quarters; toilets and showers don't work; and houses are overcrowded.
Of the ten tobacco companies whose participation was requested, only two companies (Philip Morris USA and Philip Morris International) agreed to participate.
"Both companies have developed policies for good agricultural practices," Oxfam reports, "which set standards for labor management and farm safety that all growers from whom they buy tobacco must follow."
Still, the creation of the standards did not include input from the farm workers themselves, and, Oxfam says, the aspirations of companies who set standards are not always aligned with what really takes place in the fields.
What can be done? Read the full report (pdf) to learn what Oxfam suggests.