The Tobacco Industry and the Plight of Seasonal Farm Workers in America
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The Tobacco Industry and the Plight of Seasonal Farm Workers in America


The big question in the United States now is what will happen in the age of “Build the Wall”, at least for migrant and domestic farm workers. It is the very same agricultural industries which are the most Republican, and which benefit the most from the influx of illegal and seasonally legal and semi-legal workers.

Lots has been written on this topic, even by Ralph Nader, wherein he describes abysmally low pay, toxic, unsafe working conditions, contaminated water, housing hovels and the complete absence of any legal rights.

ETA Form 790, when describing how the employer intends to provide for those working in the US under Agricultural and Food Processing Clearance Orders, those in the H-2A visa category, you will find such answers,

 “Employer will furnish free and convenient cooking and kitchen facilities for workers to prepare their own means but they will purchase their own food.”

These things I too have witnessed firsthand, whilst working in tobacco processing plants in my earlier life, seeing “Big Bosses” take a kickback on the pay of the crews they would legally bring up for the season from South-of-the-border to work in tobacco harvesting and processing plants, especially in the States of North Carolina, Virginia and Kentucky.

Workers are crowded into substandard housing or house trailers, 8 and 10 in a space only big enough for two to three, and often charged high rent for this as well. Since labor and safety rules are rarely enforced, why worry about the plight of such workers?

Some of the guilty parties, such as Universal Leaf and others are the same companies whose main clients are Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and other multi-national tobacco manufacturing giants. There was once a US tobacco support program that maintained family farms, and something of a balance between supply and demand. But all that has been taken away by the religion of free markets.

The former US Tobacco Dealer Companies have opted for vertically-integrated leaf operations. Auction markets no longer exist, even though they were not actual markets anyway but allocation systems in which the prices were fixed on a rotation basis. There was only a slight deviation of prices, based on quality incentive grading systems.

USDA inspectors set minimum base prices for the various quality standards (grades). But they were often bribed to set lower prices, and the warehouses would buy the material low into its “Leaf Account,” then resell it at the next sale and net the 3 to 5 cents difference, often substantially more on a pound. Such accounts were designed, under marketing regulations, to be used for floor sweeping and other low grade and wet tobaccos, but in reality they meant easy money for the tobacco markets, and the proceeds were traditionally used to pay off the USDA inspectors.

The days of Pride in Tobacco and family farms, which used family and local labor, are gone. Now we have one crop spreads. The result is that most of the tobacco being sold as American in cigarettes is actually grown in third world countries, where the labor is dirt cheap, profits are high and labor and other laws are not well-respected.

There was a time when the best cigarettes you could buy were made in Japan, as they used a higher percentage of US tobacco than any other country in their blends. But those days have gone too, for the same reason. The situation described is in the tobacco industry, but also applies to many agricultural industries.

One interesting footnote: the documents supplied for tobacco workers, with IDs, etc, are used for many different individual workers. A Mexican wearing a facemask working in a tobacco plant looks the same as any other, and which government regulator is going to question who is behind the mask, and whether the face matches the ID?

Legal workers provide a convenient cover for two or three times more illegal workers. Many seasonal and illegal workers work under the same documents, and more often than not in the same dismal conditions. 

But don’t worry; the tobacco industry is being exported to other countries—more and more each year, even on the manufacturing side, with Africa and Brazil now providing much of the world supply. American tobacco is still in demand, both to maintain the integrity of blends and in case of political instability; but the amount used is being further reduced every year.

At least when tobacco is produced outside the United States we don’t have to have moral discussions about labor rights, procurement, corruption and other aspects of value-added processing. Maybe we should forget about the health hazards of tobacco when deciding whether to smoke or not. The moral hazards are by far more serious, and should require some soul-searching.

Author: Jeffrey Silverman