A Smokescreen for Slavery: Human Rights Abuses in UK Supply Chains

The USA is billed as 'the land of the free', where dreams are made. We all know that is not quite the case.

We are looking a workforce that has little in the way of rights, and one where employers rely on workers to push themselves to the absolute limit. We know that migrant workers, in particular illegal migrants, form the base of low paid work in the US. But when we visited the tobacco fields in North Carolina we were shocked to find that this only scrapes the surface of the freedoms that are being restricted in America's agricultural industry.

UK company, British American Tobacco, sources its tobacco from Reynolds American, who run these fields. While the business fights public health policy here in the UK, it manages to hide from public view the most atrocious examples of modern slavery.

Workers on the fields are trafficked, mainly from Mexico, by 'coyotes' who take a cut of their weekly wage to pay for the travel. Men, women and children work the fields in temperatures upward of 35ºC, with no shade and no access to toilet facilities. Many are suffering from Green Tobacco Sickness, leading to nausea, headaches, vomiting and insomnia, due to their employers not providing even basic health and safety equipment, such as gloves.

At night they go home to squalid on-site accommodation. The sleep on dirty, wet, bug-infested mattresses, if they are lucky. Accommodation is overcrowded and very hot, with bathroom facilities that are broken and lack basic privacy such as toilet dividers.

Sexual exploitation is also rife in the industry with many women facing sexual harassment, and in some cases, sexual abuse, from their employers.

These workers are unable to stand up for themselves. They fear retaliation, knowing they are illegal in the country and families back home rely on the meagre salaries they send back.

In any case, the agricultural sector in the US is the only one in which workers do not have the right to organise, having been explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act.

Clearly, there are issues which the US administration urgently need to address, and we will continue to support colleagues in the AFL-CIO and their Farm Laborers Organizing Committee in pressing for changes to the law.

But as UK citizens we should be appalled that UK companies will accept such horrific human rights abuses within their supply chains. British American Tobacco, through its name, represents us all, whether we like it or not. They should be accountable to our ideals of fairness and justice, whether it be in the UK or abroad.

The Modern Slavery Bill has offered us an opportunity to tighten rules that already govern our supply chains, and we are proud that the Labour Party has been pushing to ensure that these provisions are included within the Bill.

But we must do more. Companies must know that we expect them to treat their staff with dignity and respect. Just as British customers took a moral stand against those companies not paying corporation tax, so too, we hope they will apply the same pressure on British American Tobacco.

And on an international level, we should not accept the weakening of trade union rights. We should fight to expect the same treatment of workers in the US as we do over here. There would be less criticism of TTIP (the transatlantic trade and investment partnership), we are sure, if UK and EU politicians were fighting to ensure any trade is underpinned by eradication of slave labour and a dramatic improvement of trade union rights.

Ideally, we could introduce into our own law, the sadly ironic provision in the U.S. Code that forbids the import of goods 'mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions'.

So on Wednesday we will launch our report, detailing our horrific findings from our visit to North Carolina. But we hope that this will lead to more than awareness of the problem. We can and should all do more to ensure British companies reflect British values wherever they go.