Farmworkers in America: State of Fear in Tobacco Fields

Farmworkers in the tobacco fields in North Carolina endure some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country. Photo: FLOC

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Oxfam and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) have been working together for several years in the effort to find ways to expose and address the inhumane conditions in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. In 2011, Oxfam and FLOC researched and published the groundbreaking report State of Fear, that explored the human rights abuses of farmworkers in the tobacco agricultural system in the US. FLOC launched a campaign against Reynolds American Inc. on behalf of farmworkers in tobacco fields, and continues to rally support for their human rights. Oxfam has attended annual Reynolds shareholder meetings with FLOC, and has organized allies to urge Reynolds to improve conditions in fields and camps.

A state of fear: Human rights abuses in North Carolina's tobacco industry

America’s migrant farmworkers toil for sub-poverty wages under some of the most dangerous working conditions in the nation. Oxfam and FLOC conducted a joint study of the tobacco industry’s impact on the human rights of farmworkers in the fields of North Carolina.

Research findings

Violation of just and favorable work conditions: Fair wages

One in four—22 out of the 86 workers interviewed—reported that they were paid less than the federally mandated minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and 57 workers said that their pay was not enough to meet their basic needs.

Violation of safe and healthy working conditions

A majority of workers interviewed reported regularly suffering symptoms of green tobacco sickness (GTS), a form of acute nicotine poisoning caused by absorption of excessive amounts of nicotine through the skin.

Heatstroke is the leading cause of work-related deaths among farmworkers, even though North Carolina law requires that every fieldworker have access to cold, fresh water. Many reported that clean water was not available.

In addition, many workers reported that they were not given sufficient breaks and that they often felt pressured by supervisors to work faster. Several participants reported working in a field while pesticides were being sprayed, and more than one-third reported pesticide-related illnesses.

Violation of adequate housing

Nearly all the workers living in employer-provided housing described problems such as inadequate or nonfunctional showers and toilets, over-crowding, leaky roofs, lack of locks, lack of heat, lack of ventilation, beds with worn-out mattresses or none at all, infestations of insects and rodents, lack of laundry facilities, and inadequate cooking facilities.

Violation of freedom of association: Workers’ voices silenced

Few workers said they felt free to join a union or collectively bargain with their employer. Many said fear of incarceration and deportation or of being fired keeps them from speaking out about problems. 

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