Cross-cultural Exchange: RJ Reynolds Executives Meet with Farmworker Advocates

What would YOU say if you had 2 ½ hours to talk over the many issues surrounding farmworker welfare with powerful corporate executives, who work for a company that has significant power in the agricultural commodity supply chain?   What questions would you ask?

I’ve been a volunteer advocate for Farmworker issues for several years, but a meeting last week at Umstead United Church of Christ was unlike any I’ve ever attended --  because our group (eleven farmworker advocates representing various NC faith institutions or viewpoints) had the opportunity to discuss farmworker issues with two high powered executives from RJ Reynolds – the company which has been the focus of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) efforts to improve farmworker conditions in the tobacco supply chain.  

A meeting with the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) had been requested by RJR (a surprise in itself) in response to an NFWM sign-on letter -- a letter that had collected 500 signatures from faith leaders across the country, from local church ministers to lay social justice committee leaders to national or state-level church councils.   Was the large number of signers the reason RJR had requested a meeting?   We didn’t know, but were happy for the meeting opportunity.

So what did we learn about how RJR sees farmworker issues?  

(1) RJR is genuinely affronted by what they see as RJR’s having been “targeted” by FLOC …..  while feeling that FLOC has overlooked the fact that other major tobacco companies are not doing nearly as much to address farmworker issues. 

It was unclear if RJR realized that this reaction seemed to us a too-convenient way of avoiding the real issue – farmworkers are being terribly exploited, day in and day out, and a solution must start somewhere.   RJR is not yet ready to see the attention being directed their way could be viewed as handing them a favored position – an opportunity  to provide significant positive leadership for change in corporate social responsibility policies and practice. 

(2) RJR is especially perplexed by the attention focused on it because it sees its recent “audits” of its 600+ grower-suppliers as being a ground-breaking effort that has documented: 

  • that most of its suppliers already maintain high standards;  
  • that the follow-up visits to the relatively few farms with weaknesses have been effective, and
  • that its additional programs (funded at $240K) to fund migrant housing improvement programs illustrate its commitment. 

It was unclear if RJR understood our voiced skepticism about the audit results.  The basis for much of the audit’s positive grades were on-farm interviews conducted with grower-owners and farmworkers by an “independent company”.    In our own visits to labor camps, a high proportion of workers are reluctant to talk – even with farmworker advocates.  It may take several visits for a worker even to talk about work and the weather.    How much more skeptical might a worker be to an interviewer who showed up suddenly,  declared himself “neutral”, but was asking a strange series of questions about whether the boss was complying with the law, and whether safety standards were observed ?    How believable to farmworkers who constantly fear for their job would an interviewer’s guarantee of “anonymity” be?   What methods were in place to guarantee that a crew leader did not intimidate workers and coach “correct” answers?  What transpired at each farm between the time the audit was scheduled and the actual audit visit? 

However, in our meeting we applauded RJR’s intent and motivation, while arguing that RJR had undertaken an impossible task – that a program based on monitoring grower adherence to current law and regulations could only make significant improvements “around the far edges” of this huge problem  because 

  1. the laws and regulations protecting farmworkers are so weak (e.g. 1 washtub for 20 workers) as to be an affront to human dignity;  
  2. that “enforcement” by the state is embedded in, and restricted by, the same political and cultural forces that have severely squashed legislative regulatory improvements for the past 50 years;  and that
  3. growers are embedded in a competitive economic system that virtually requires them to prioritize cost-cutting over farmworker welfare goals.  

Thus true “enforcement” would require an independent enforcer presence on every farm, on every day.    From our standpoint, this should make the idea of empowering workers attractive for all stakeholders.   If, in response to a crew leader’s insistence that a recently pesticide-sprayed field must be entered immediately, workers can say “no, we won’t go in there, it’s dangerous, and we’ll file a grievance if you insist”, there’s a much better chance that worker welfare will win out.

(3) The RJR representatives did at least acknowledge that farmworkers could join a union, and asserted that RJR did not object, nor does it try to hinder, a process for organizing.   However, they asserted that RJR could not promote such organizing by providing incentives to growers to adhere to a process where workers could decide if they wanted union representation, because it would be too costly, and because RJR would be subsidizing other non-participating tobacco companies (because any given grower is often contracting with more than one tobacco purchaser). 

We have more to learn about the economics of the tobacco industry ….. but RJR’s (and the wider industry’s) profit levels make this a hard argument to swallow.  

So, this first meeting had elements of a sparring match, with participants probing for weaknesses, but it also had genuine elements of exploration of the other side’s viewpoint.  I came away hopeful – not of an impending breakthrough or solution, but that this dialogue was at least a new and more hopeful phase in our struggle.   This feeling had to compete with the general feeling that RJR continues searching for a way to avoid  responsibility, rather than grapple with the solution that is staring us in the face – worker empowerment.    

Perhaps most important was the fact that RJR had asked for this meeting.   Farmworkers' organizing struggles have been successful where public support has been strong;   RJR’s meeting with us seemed to acknowledge that they, too, realize that farmworker welfare is higher on the public agenda.   Rev. Nancy Petty reinforced that point, when she said:  “I hope this meeting will motivate us to see the reality of farmworkers’ lives, not merely anonymous actors in an issue we must address.  What farmworkers suffer is not the kind of humanity we want to be a part of.”   I believe that everyone attending was agreeing with that statement, in their own way.