Weather doesn’t stop Winston-Salem rally for human rights on tobacco farms

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Rain and chilly temperatures didn’t stop people from taking to the streets for the eighth straight year, joining the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, for a rally and march outside the Reynolds American building, in their words, “to demand the company finally act to ensure that their supply chain is free of human rights abuses.”

“We will fight, rain or shine,” was one of the chants coming from the crowd, as they left the Reynolds American building and marched through the streets of downtown Winston-Salem.

“Rain or shine, cold or hot, we have to speak out for the rights of the people. For ourselves, for our families, and at whatever sacrifice it takes. There can’t be real freedom without some sacrifices,” said Farm Labor Organizing Committee President Baldemar Velasquez.

The organization says their three main issues are, “reliance on human trafficking for their labor supply on contract farms, squalid conditions found in the labor camps and the state of fear of retaliation for workers who complain about these abuses.”

Some of the participants say they started working in tobacco fields as children.

“It’s not very fun,” said Jacqueline Castillo, who says she started on a farm before her 8th birthday. “I feel like I missed a part of my childhood.”

Castillo remembers working as a child while many were playing.

“It’d be embarrassing to sometimes where the same shoes we used to work to go to school,” she said.

Poor conditions in labor camps stand out in her mind, saying, “we would ask for water, and the water would be yellow, sometimes it would have little black specks.”

Velasquez said the rally was intended to push Reynolds American to “recognize freedom of association,” and implement it.

“There’s considerable reform that’s gotta be done at the bottom of the supply chain of agriculture in North Carolina,” he said.

A press release from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee reads, “Velasquez believes that only when migrant farm workers have a recognized worker organization can their complaints about their working and living conditions be effectively addressed. He wants Reynolds American put into practice the Company’s commitments to human rights and sign an agreement guaranteeing freedom of association on their contract farms. After nearly three years of discussions, Reynolds American has yet to sign an agreement with FLOC.”