About 20 protesters gathered outside a Kangaroo gas station in West Raleigh on Saturday afternoon to pressure R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to help improve working conditions for farm workers who harvest their tobacco.
The protesters waved red flags and held signs that said, “Farm worker rights are human rights,” and “Justice for farm workers now,” hoping to apply pressure up the supply chain to the Winston-Salem tobacco company.
“If they won’t listen to farm workers and supporters, maybe they will listen to their customers,” said Justin Flores, an organizer with the AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, also called FLOC.
Among the protesters was Jeremy Sprinkle, the N.C. AFL-CIO’s communications director, who lives nearby.
“I often shop at this Kangaroo,” Sprinkle said. “It’s the least I can do for people who struggle so hard for so little and don’t get enough respect. Tobacco farm work is really hard. Kangaroo has an opportunity to do some good to talk to Reynolds about doing right by the farm workers who produce its golden leaf.”
To understand Saturday’s protest, one has to understand how cigarettes get to gas stations. Farmers who hire farm workers contract with companies, like R.J. Reynolds, to grow tobacco. The tobacco companies sell their products to distributors, who supply convenience stores and other retailers.
Kangaroo gas stations are owned by The Pantry, a Cary company with more than 1,500 stores, making it the Southeast’s largest convenience store chain. A third of the Pantry’s sales come from tobacco products, Flores said. And its distributor, McLane, a Texas company, buys almost a third of R.J. Reynolds’ products, Flores said.
FLOC and R.J. Reynolds officials have had meetings this summer about conditions for farm workers. But Flores, the FLOC organizer, hopes protests outside Kangaroo stores from Raleigh to Greensboro will encourage more action by the tobacco company.
A report published last year by Oxfam and FLOC based on interviews with 86 tobacco farm workers in North Carolina showed that many were exposed to pesticides, suffered from green tobacco sickness, were not given access to clean water and experienced horrible living conditions in employer-provided housing. A fourth of the workers were paid less than the federally mandated minimum wage, according to the report.
A Pantry spokesman said the company has done what protesters have asked.
In an email Saturday, referring to RJR’s parent company, Reynolds American, spokesman Scott Yates wrote: “The Pantry believes that discussions regarding farm working conditions are more appropriate among Reynolds American and others directly involved, including manufacturers, contract farmers, government regulators and labor organizers – not retailers....Having communicated with Reynolds American as requested by FLOC, there is nothing left for The Pantry to do.”
David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, said Saturday, “We go to great measures to ensure safety on the farms with which we contract...We take the issue of farm labor seriously.”
Howard said the company provides worker safety training sessions, materials and DVDs in English and Spanish to their contract farmers. Howard said those contracts require farmers to abide by state and federal laws governing worker safety.
Beyond that, Howard said concerns about working conditions on farms isn’t limited to the tobacco industry but extends across agriculture. He said R.J. Reynolds is participating in discussions with government officials, growers, labor leaders and other businesses about conditions for farm workers.