A group of farm workers is targeting ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, a brand known for its social responsibility, asking the company to take part in a new program to ensure that the workers on Vermont dairy farms are guaranteed fair housing and decent wages.
The Milk With Dignity Program is an effort of the group Migrant Justice, which is dedicated to human rights and food justice.
Ben & Jerry's buys much of their milk in Vermont from St. Albans Cooperative. Many of the dairy farms that sell their milk to St. Albans use migrant labor on their farms. There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers on Vermont's 800 dairy farms.
"There are many problems that our community faces," said Enrique Balcazar, a 22-year-old who came to Vermont to work on a dairy farm. "We are excluded from the Vermont minimum wage; there are also long work hours. You work, you get up at maybe 2 or 3 a.m., work 12 or 13 hours a day and maybe don't have a day off, only to return to housing that is not dignified or quality housing."
Balcazar does not currently work on a farm, and he's active in the group Migrant Justice. While he speaks some English, Migrant Justice's Brendan O'Neil served as an interpreter throughout a recent interview.
The Milk With Dignity program is based on the Fair Food program in Florida, which was organized by Florida farm workers. The five elements are a code of conduct defining fair housing and workers rights, access to education, third party monitoring, a premium payment to farmers and farm workers who meet the program's standards and a legally binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract.
Balcazar says the program would give voice to the farm workers and protect their rights. O'Neil said that Ben & Jerry's has taken action for cows, through banning use of bovine growth hormone, and for chickens through the use of cage-free eggs. They say Ben & Jerry's, as a socially-responsible company, has to take action on problems in its supply chain.
"I think some of the public perception is that Ben & Jerry's isn't doing anything about this," said Rob Michalak, Director of Social Mission at Ben & Jerry's. "Behind the scenes, we've been working on this for a long time."
He pointed to the company's Caring Dairy program, which is a self-assessment program for farmers that looks at 11 indicators of sustainability. One of the elements is "social human capital," that looks at conditions for farmers and farm workers.
"In that [program] we're looking at the labor issue to make sure that conditions are safe, people are paid well, and that they're living in good conditions. We're working on a lot of what Migrant Justice is working on. We think the work they are doing is important," Michalak said.
Migrant Justice argues that as a self-assessment, voluntary program, Caring Dairy doesn't have enough teeth to force meaningful changes.
Michalak said Ben & Jerry's prefers to take a holistic, collaborative approach to the issues in the dairy industry. The company has a program manager out working with the farmers, and 85 farms have gone through the program. There are 430 farms in Vermont and New York that supply milk to St. Albans Cooperative.
"Right now the program is working in a way that people are feeling that they're invested in collaborating on improving the standards," Michalak said. "The issues that we're talking about here require a lot of people at the table, we're talking about federal policy, state policy, farmers and the conditions they have at their farms. We're also talking about commercial entities like Ben & Jerry's and others that are dairy processors and the advocates, working for the workers. You have advocates coming at the farmers from all different angles and so in many ways the dairy farmers can feel like they're attacked from a variety of advocacy and all of them are legitimate. When we're talking about the conditions for human beings, we want to make sure that the human rights and the civil rights, but also the best welfare of those workers are taken care of. But then you have people from the animal advocacy rights coming at you, then you have people from the environmental side, and so we think with issues such as this, we think it's really important for all of the players to sit at the table get to programs that work for everybody."
The Caring Dairy standards are currently being re-written with help from the Agricultural Justice Project, a collaboration of non-profits based in Florida, as well as industry experts to make sure that the new standards take better care of the workers and the farmers, animals and the earth.
"It's a complex system," Michalak said. "We're trying to approach it from all angles as responsibly as we can."