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“Milk with Dignity will bring about a new day for dairy workers. Ben & Jerry’s is just the beginning. Company by company, we the workers—whether parents working to provide for their children, or youth dreaming of a brighter future—will transform this industry and win our human rights.” –Enrique Balcazar, Migrant Justice Farm Worker Member*
Migrant Justice was formed in 2009 in response to the death of a young Vermont dairy farm worker by a diverse alliance of farm workers and concerned Vermonters, with the goal of allowing farm workers the opportunity to gather, discuss community problems, and envision solutions and plans for action.
In 2014, Migrant Justice’s members conducted a survey of 200 of the estimated 1,200-1,500 immigrant farm workers in the Vermont dairy industry, and found that a variety of abuses were surprisingly common. For example, 40% were paid below Vermont minimum wage, 29% worked seven or more hours in a row without a break, and 15% had insufficient heat in their housing. Migrant Justice’s members converted these violations into solutions by creating the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct, which defines the human rights essential to a dignified workplace and fair housing.
To place these abuses in a larger context, Migrant Justice next addressed the corporate structure of the dairy industry and traveled to Florida to meet with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to learn about their Campaign for Fair Food. Through legally binding agreements with fourteen major fast food and supermarket corporations—including McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Walmart—the tomato workers of the CIW require companies to buy from tomato growers that follow a farm worker-authored code of conduct and pay a bonus that reaches workers.
The five elements of Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program are adapted from the Fair Food Program: the code of conduct mentioned above; farm worker education; a third party body that monitors, enforces, and audits farmer compliance; economic relief provided to both farm workers and farmers; and a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under the law.
In December 2014, Migrant Justice’s leadership invited Ben & Jerry’s to become the first company to join Milk with Dignity after years of educating the company about the challenges farm workers face in their supply chain. Because Ben & Jerry’s has distinguished itself for its commitment to social justice and high standards for sourcing ingredients in its world famous ice cream, workers hoped the company would be a proactive champion of the Milk with Dignity Program.
Ben & Jerry’s is also important to Migrant Justice because it purchases 100% of its cream in the Northeast from St. Albans Cooperative farms where many (if not the majority) of Vermont’s farm workers are employed. Further, from the beginning Vermont dairy workers have recognized that, in order for Milk with Dignity to be truly viable, buyers like Ben & Jerry’s would have to pay farmers a better price for their milk in order to offset costs of compliance due to unfair and volatile conditions in the dairy industry.
Although Ben & Jerry’s signed an Agreement to Cooperate on June 19, 2015, and they have participated in ongoing negotiations with Migrant Justice since then to hash out the details, the company has yet to finalize its participation by signing a legally binding agreement. Feeling exasperated by two full years of delayed action, Migrant Justice on June 17, 2017, led a 250-person pilgrimage through Vermont’s working rural landscapes with a national call to action for human rights, walking thirteen miles from Vermont’s State House to the Ben & Jerry’s plant in Waterbury. The march placed Milk with Dignity on the national center stage and piqued media interest from coast (Boston Herald) to coast (San Francisco Chronicle).
This day of action was supported by allies across the country, such as the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, who delivered a letter to Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim on behalf of the 1.4 million-member Protestant denomination calling on Ben & Jerry’s to join the Milk with Dignity Program. As Dr. Nelson states in this letter,
“I urge you, do not delay any longer. Every day is a day that farm workers continue to suffer, farms are stretched further, and your customers grow more impatient. Sign in fact what you have already agreed to in principle, so that these anticipated transformational gains in human rights and sustainability may become a reality in Vermont’s dairy industry.”
*Click here to read one of a Migrant Justice member’s personal story of his work on Vermont dairy farms and participation in creating the Milk with Dignity program.