Farm Labor Issues
Agricultural labor issues in America span hundreds of different crops, virtually every state, and thousands of corporations, both U.S.-based and foreign. The issues are complex and are inextricably bound to national debates over labor laws, workplace safety, immigration policy and a host of other issues.
No one company, industry or state can resolve these issues alone. But because these issues impact our supply chain, they are of great interest and importance to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
R.J. Reynolds doesn’t employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco. Because farm workers are not our employees, we have no direct control over their sourcing, their training, their pay rates, or their housing and access to human services. But we can – and do – bring significant efforts to bear to ensure that our suppliers have the training and resources they need to do the right thing for the people who play an important role in our supply chain. Significant efforts are already underway, and we are committed to continuing to play an appropriate role in this process.
Over the years, R.J. Reynolds has worked actively to assess conditions on the farms that supply our tobacco. We have taken constructive steps to help these farmers provide their workers with safe working conditions and humane living conditions. These efforts are ongoing, and they involve both our own initiatives and cooperative efforts with others. We believe we have made a significant contribution to progress on these issues.
What does that look like? On a practical basis, it takes several forms:
- Setting clear contractual requirements and expectations;
- Providing resources for training and record-keeping to assist all R.J. Reynolds contract growers and encourage consistency across farms; and
- Participating actively in a multilateral council that brings a variety of affected stakeholders to the table to work on the broader issues that have the potential to impact far more than just the farms with whom R.J. Reynolds contracts.
Contractual requirements set clear expectations
R.J. Reynolds’ contracts with farmers require them to abide by all local, state and federal laws. Being out of compliance of applicable laws is grounds for termination.
We work cooperatively with these farmers to help them meet or exceed regulatory requirements. This takes the form of straightforward things like working with them to ensure the required Occupational and Safety Health Administration and Fair Labor Standards posters are on display. But it also extends to commitments like our long-running sponsorship of the N.C. Department of Labor’s Gold Star Program, which recognizes growers who outperform their peers on worker housing standards.
Growers with whom R.J. Reynolds contract know that the company sets the bar high, and they have a good track record of meeting those expectations.
Training and resources facilitate compliance and improvement
R.J. Reynolds has long provided training materials for farmers and their employees on key issues related to workplace safety and proper use of equipment and agrochemicals. In recent years, the company has provided a much more structured and intensive training program. Participation by growers is required as a condition of contracting with R.J. Reynolds.
Beginning in 2011 and continuing in 2012 and 2013, contracted growers are required by R.J. Reynolds to participate in a Good Agricultural Practice training program before the company will purchase their tobacco. These required training sessions, administered by the Cooperative Extension Services in tobacco-growing states, include education on:
- Heat stress, green tobacco sickness, and proper use of farm equipment and personal protective equipment;
- State and federal employment regulations on hiring practices, wages and hours;
- Restrictions on the use of minors in the workplace;
- Workers’ compensation insurance;
- Housing inspection requirements; and
- Product track-and-trace requirements.
To help farmers standardize and document their practices, in the first quarter of 2012, R.J. Reynolds provided a “Good Agricultural Practices Record Book” to each of them. The Record Book takes growers step-by-step through the nature and timing of a range of requirements – including worker safety training, environmental protection, soil and water conservation planning, pest and agrochemical management, labor information resources and other topics. Grower feedback to this organized approach to documentation and record-keeping has been very positive.
Beginning in 2013, all growers contracted by R.J. Reynolds were required to be trained under the U.S. Tobacco Good Agricultural Practices Program, and were issued a manual to keep proper records of their efforts to meet all requirements.
For several years, the company also has conducted additional training initiatives with a range of public partners. In 2011, for example, the N.C. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Green County, N.C., Health Department partnered with R.J. Reynolds to provide on-site farm safety training to more than 380 workers and 67 tobacco growers from six counties. A similar program was conducted in 2012, and the company plans to continue to partner with local, state and federal governmental agencies by sponsoring additional on-site worker safety training programs in North Carolina in 2013.
In 2012, R.J. Reynolds sponsored an update to the N.C. Department of Labor’s training video focusing on migrant housing requirements and best practices. This video was distributed, free of charge, to all R.J. Reynolds’ contracted growers in early 2013 and is available to all farmers that use migrant labor.
As a matter of practice, the company provides growers with training materials in both English and Spanish, including DVDs on hazardous materials, adequate housing requirements, pesticide safety, heat stress, farm equipment safety and green tobacco sickness. The availability of these free materials to all R.J. Reynolds’ contracted growers makes it convenient for them to train workers not only at the beginning of a season but throughout the growing cycle as their needs dictate.
Audits conducted in 2012 suggested that growers were using the videos and training materials as intended.
Providing their workers with proper education, safety policies, housing provisions and wages is important to R.J. Reynolds’ contract growers. Not only does the company make it clear to the growers that this is our expectation, but on a practical basis, it also contributes to the migrant workers’ decision to return to the same farm year after year, which is common among the farms with whom the company contracts.
Audits to assess effectiveness of training
To assess the effectiveness of its training programs, R.J. Reynolds audited every grower that contracts with the company in North Carolina over 2011 and 2012. Underwriters Laboratories’ Responsible Sourcing, Inc., a respected outside auditor with experience in workplace and agronomic practices, examined general labor conditions and the use of Good Agricultural Practices on North Carolina farms that contract with R.J. Reynolds. As part of these audits, workers were interviewed outside of the presence of the farmers in order to ensure a candid assessment of labor and farm practices. The 2011-2012 audit results are summarized below. Audits were conducted among a total of 408 growers and a total of 922 interviews with workers were conducted. Overall, the audit findings were encouraging in the areas of worker treatment and safety, but revealed that further work is needed in the area of record-keeping. Some of the key findings were:
- 95 percent of the growers audited provided a safe environment for tobacco workers;
- 73 percent of the growers provided documented health and safety training to workers;
- 90 percent of growers audited made personal protective equipment (PPE) available to workers and in most cases where they did not, the workers had their own equipment;
- More than 94 percent of workers interviewed reported knowing who to contact if they had a complaint; and
- 1 percent of interviewed workers reported receiving less than minimum wage.
For the summary report on the 2011-2012 farm audits, please click here. You can also request a copy by writing to the Vice President of Corporate Sustainability and Commercial Equity, RAI Services Co., P.O. Box 464, Winston-Salem, N.C., 27102.
The 2011 and 2012 farm audits confirmed that growers in North Carolina who supply R.J. Reynolds with tobacco are working to comply with all laws and regulations and foster a safe working environment. But there is room to improve, and the auditors made several recommendations in that regard. R.J. Reynolds has already taken and will continue to take steps to help contracted growers take action on the auditors’ recommendations.
On the participating farms, the auditors’ view that safe working conditions were the norm was confirmation that all the efforts those farmers have undertaken are making a difference. R.J. Reynolds remains committed to providing appropriate support for its contracted growers’ efforts to comply with the letter and spirit of applicable laws relating to their workforce.
Multilateral group on farm labor issues creates a forum for sharing ideas and developing constructive solutions
R.J. Reynolds has not only taken steps to promote responsibility within its own supply chain, it has also worked with other stakeholders to address the larger supply chain for labor-intensive agricultural products in North Carolina. In 2011, R.J. Reynolds committed to participate in the creation of a multilateral group to promote farm-worker safety and improved working conditions on tobacco farms. This group brings together manufacturers, grower representatives, worker advocates and government agencies to address, in a manner appropriate to such a group, the complex issues affecting farm labor. The group has met formally three times, and additional meetings have been held among sub-groups assigned to specific topics such as public policy, training and education, and grievance procedures. Additionally, representatives of R.J. Reynolds have met on several occasions with the leadership of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which is a member of the multilateral group.
R.J. Reynolds believes that this group presents the best opportunity to address agricultural labor issues in North Carolina because these issues are neither specific to any one tobacco manufacturer nor even to tobacco generally: farmers typically sell tobacco to multiple purchasers, and farm workers often work on a variety of crops in addition to tobacco. R.J. Reynolds also believes that the inclusion of interested governmental agencies in the dialogue is critical, as government is uniquely situated to ensure that workers receive the benefits of the laws because government, and only government, has the power to enforce those laws. Accordingly, we are committed to working collaboratively with other stakeholders to address farm labor issues in North Carolina.
In 2013, R.J. Reynolds plans to pilot a public-private partnership with Telamon, a non-profit organization that offers a range of support services aimed at improving living and working conditions for farm workers. R.J. Reynolds plans to significantly increase the reach of Telamon’s program that provides farmers with matching-grants funds to upgrade and improve housing for farm laborers. The company hopes that, based on results in the initial year of the partnership, other members of the multilateral council may be interested in supporting further expansion of Telamon’s programs in the future.
R.J. Reynolds is proud of its efforts to promote responsibility in the North Carolina tobacco supply chain. While we are not the largest purchaser of North Carolina tobacco, we do our utmost to promote sustainability and responsibility. Nevertheless, we are always interested in opportunities for improvement, not only within our supply chain, but within the North Carolina supply chain in general. Consequently, we are committed to working within the framework of the multilateral dialogue group to address issues that can only be addressed when the public and private stakeholders come together in an appropriate manner to exchange views and pursue opportunities.