Demonstrators protest at Reynolds American

A group of 17 demonstrators staged a rally Tuesday in front of Reynolds American Inc.’s downtown headquarters to call attention to tobacco-farm workers, who the protesters said are often underpaid and forced to live in poor conditions.

Gail Phares of Raleigh, an organizer and advocate for immigrants’ rights, said that the U.S. must reform its immigration policies.

“It’s time for us to recognize the labor of farm workers and immigrants and their contributions to economic life in America,” Phares said to the group as they stood in a circle on the sidewalk in front of the building. “We must reject the criminalization of immigrants, and the politicians must fix a broken system.”

The protest was part of the 25th annual Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, a statewide effort to support human rights for farm workers and undocumented immigrants. Some demonstrators carried white crosses and red flags, representing the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which is part of the AFL-CIO.

There are about 30,000 tobacco-farm workers in North Carolina. FLOC representatives argued with company officials last year during Reynolds’ annual shareholder meeting. The group also plans to protest at this year’s meeting, which will be held May 6.

Before the rally, the demonstrators participated in a discussion about immigration at Dellabrook Presbyterian Church, off New Walkertown Road. The church and The Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity sponsored the discussion.

They then walked about 3 miles to the Reynolds American’s building on Main Street.

“We are small in numbers today, but we present thousands of people, church members and farm workers,” Alexandria Jones, an organizer with the National Farm Worker Ministry told the demonstrators.

The events were coordinated by two groups founded by Phares — Witness for Peace Southeast, which works for social justice in North and South America; and the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America, which supports poor people in North Carolina and Latin America and advocates immigration reform.

Diego Reyes, a demonstrator from Dudley in eastern North Carolina, told the protestors that Reynolds American must understand the needs of farm workers.

A spokeswoman for Reynolds American declined to comment Tuesday on the protests, referring to an open letter about farm-labor issues on the company’s website.

In the letter, the company says, in part, that it supports a state law that requires adequate working and living conditions for farm laborers. It also said it had taken measures to ensure safe work environments on the farms.

The Rev. Craig Schaub, the pastor of Parkway United Church of Christ, attended the rally with his daughter. “I support a living wage and safe working conditions for farm workers,” Schaub said.

By JOHN HINTON | Winston-Salem Journal

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