From JournalNow.com, The Winston-Salem Journal, Richard Craver, 5 May 2011.
Reynolds American Inc. took a step today toward finding common ground with groups representing migrant farm workers in addressing laborers’ work and living conditions.
The issue has been raised for at least four years at Reynolds’ annual shareholders meeting. Groups wanting to protest Reynolds’ policies typically buy its shares to be able to speak at the meeting.
Reynolds repeated its stance that it is not the company’s role to negotiate on behalf of non-Reynolds workers. In February 2010, Reynolds’ board of directors announced a “Statement on Human Rights” – on its website – for how it and its operating companies conduct their businesses.
There was some scoffing among farm-worker representatives when Daniel Delen, who took over as chief executive and president of Reynolds in March, said, “We believe no company has done more than R.J. Reynolds to promote farm worker safety and improved working conditions on tobacco farms in North Carolina and beyond.”
However, Reynolds’ two updates to its policies appeared to take some of the tension out of the room since they were acknowledgments the company can take a more visible role in worker conditions.
It was not clear whether the proposals were a reflection of Delen’s role as top executive compared with Susan Ivey, who retired Feb. 28, or an evolution of Reynolds’ stance on the issue. Delen could not be reached for immediate comment after the meeting.
The first proposal is a pledge to use an independent, third-party monitor to assess the working conditions at U.S. tobacco farms that supply product to Reynolds.
The second is its support of a council involving tobacco manufacturers, growers, farm workers and their representatives, such as Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC has been demanding that Reynolds use its clout to pressure its suppliers to improve conditions and raise wages for the state’s 30,000 tobacco farm workers.
“Formation of such a council, when properly constituted, might well make a significant contribution to the improvement of worker safety and living conditions on the farms,” Delen said.
“We believe that making progress on ensuring a safe and legal work environment for U.S. farm workers can best be achieved by taking this broader view of the situation.”
Delen said that its legal officials are meeting with Oxfam America and FLOC officials on Monday to begin the process of determining the lead official of the council.
“We want a leader who is independent, socially conscious and with no financial conflicts,” Delen said.
FLOC had about 130 participants at its local protest. It also was armed with a report that it said documented subminimum wages, needlessly dangerous conditions in the fields and inhumane living conditions at some N.C. tobacco farms last year.
“This research reveals an industry that systematically exploits farm workers’ fears of arrest and deportation to deprive them of their basic, internationally recognized human rights,” said Minor Sinclair, the director of Oxfam America’s U.S. regional office.
“We hope the people who can truly influence Reynolds American will review this meticulously documented, first-hand research and take the suggested actions contained in the report. Nothing less is acceptable.”