Milk with Dignity Program already making great strides in the Vermont dairy industry!

Vermont dairy workers head to work in the early morning. Photo by Caleb Kenna.

Vermont dairy worker on the Milk with Dignity Program: “Now that we’re in the program, I learned my rights as a worker, about raises and days off, about how we should be treated.  Now we can speak freely, without fear.”

This past Wednesday, Vermont dairy workers with Migrant Justice held a press conference in Waterbury, Vermont, eager to announce some very exciting news:  After its landmark agreement with Ben & Jerry’s last October, Migrant Justice – together with the brand-new Milk with Dignity Standards Council – has been hard at work turning the promises of that seminal agreement into a reality, and the initial results are nothing short of remarkable.  The Milk With Dignity Program is the first full-fledged replication of the Fair Food Program model in the United States.

For hundreds of workers on over 70 farms across Vermont, the changes heralded by the creation of the Milk with Dignity Program are well underway.  Wednesday’s press conference was covered in an article by the Associated Press, which described the progress of the Milk with Dignity Program to date:

WATERBURY, Vt. (AP) — A farmworker-driven agreement that Ben & Jerry’s signed last year to improve pay and working conditions of laborers on farms that provide the ice cream company milk has been successful, with 72 Northeast farms enrolled and 250 farmworkers covered, the company and a farmworker advocacy group said Wednesday.

Ben & Jerry’s signed the “Milk with Dignity” agreement last October, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. dairy industry. It’s based on the Fair Food Program started for tomato workers in Florida.

Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium to farmers who agree to follow certain labor and housing standards, including meeting Vermont’s minimum wage and providing workers with one day off a week, five paid sick days and five paid vacation days a year. A third party board monitors farms, takes and addresses complaints from workers and works with farms on improvements.

Ben & Jerry’s gets milk from the St. Albans Cooperative in Vermont, where 72 farms are enrolled in the Milk with Dignity program, producing milk for the company’s ice cream. That milk gets mixed with milk from other cooperative members, the company said.

Many of the farms rely on immigrant labor.

“Milk with Dignity has been the dream of farmworkers in Vermont for many years,” Enrique Balcazar, a former farmworker from Tabasco, Mexico, said through an interpreter. He has worked on four different dairy farms in Vermont. “It’s a path forward for us to have our voices recognized and to have our rights and dignity recognized,” said Balcazar who is a leader in the group Migrant Justice.

In addition to news conference in Waterbury, Migrant Justice launched the brand-new Milk with Dignity website online.  The new site details the structure and function of the Program’s monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, its worker-informed Code of Conduct, and the third-party auditing of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council:

History and Development:

Consolidation and globalization in the food industry allow powerful retail brands to leverage their volume purchasing power and benefit from low prices. This creates downward pressure on farmers’ incomes and, ultimately, on farmworkers’ wages and working conditions. After significant immigrant rights victories and building upon years of working to improve labor and housing conditions on a farm-by-farm basis, Vermont dairy workers’ search for an effective systemic change led them to Florida. A series of farmworker-to-farmworker exchanges with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) opened Vermont workers’ eyes to the transformative power of the Worker Driven Social Responsibility (WSR) model that fuels the CIW’s highly acclaimed Fair Food Program (FFP).

Migrant Justice’s in-depth collaborative process with the CIW and FFP helped inspire and inform the creation of the Milk with Dignity (MD) Program. In October of 2017, after years of negotiations and campaigning, Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s signed an historic agreement making Ben & Jerry’s the first major dairy corporation to join the MD Program and require its supplier farms to come into compliance with the MD Code of Conduct. In 2018 the MD Program has made steady progress after being rolled out on the 70+ farms making up Ben & Jerry’s northeast dairy supply chain. 

In the first months of 2018, the newly formed independent 3rd party monitor of the MD Program, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC) has:

  • Held over 70 orientations for farmers to learn about and join the MD Program;
  • Responded to dozens of worker calls and referrals to its 24/7 worker support line working with farmers and farmworkers to define concrete plans to resolve violations of the MD Code of Conduct;
  • Conducted over a dozen audits and will audit all farms with employees by the end of 2018 creating detailed Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) to define plans to achieve compliance;

And in 2018, Migrant Justice has:

  • Conducted over 50 MD worker education sessions, teaching hundreds of dairy workers about their newly secured rights on all of Ben & Jerry’s supplier farms with employees;
  • Referred over a dozen workers to the MDSC 24/7 worker support line to address violations of the MD Code of Conduct and answer questions;
  • Began exploratory discussions with a couple of other major dairy brands and farmworkers gearing up to expand the MD Program to secure the rights of thousands of dairy workers one supply chain at a time.

Most importantly, change is being measured not only quantitatively, but also through the qualitative experiences of dairy workers themselves.  Even in these few short months, the Milk with Dignity Program is making a tangible difference in the lives of workers:

“Milk with Dignity came to our farm and changed everything.  Now we can sit down with the boss and have a dialogue, we have the right to speak up when something’s not right.  The owners are much more attentive than before. We have a new refrigerator and new stove, they patched up the holes in the floor, and we have a couch now. Before we just sat on wooden benches.  The boss already was conscientious and open-minded, but I don’t think he would have made these improvements if it weren’t for Milk with Dignity.  The program’s been great for us, and I think it’s been good for the bosses, too.  We’re all benefiting.”

– Adonai

“For four years it was the same routine.  Every day, seven days a week.  We would ask for raises and wouldn’t get them.  But we heard about the program and said ‘hopefully it comes here!’ Now that we’re in the program, I learned my rights as a worker, about raises and days off, about how we should be treated.  Now we can speak freely, without fear.”

– Meregildo

“Before the program, if we wanted face masks, we would have to buy them ourselves.  Breathing in that dust every day — the dried manure — it gets in your lungs and makes you sick.  But with the program, we talked with the boss and now he provides masks, safety glasses, anything we need to keep ourselves safe.  Before we didn’t have any bargaining power; with the program we know what we can demand. We know our right as workers.”

– Hector

We applaud the dedicated leaders at Migrant Justice and the Milk with Dignity Standards Council.  Investing the countless hours necessary to win power in the market, and then translating that power into something truly and profoundly transformative for an entire industry, is no small task.  This is the first step toward a promising new future for Vermont’s 1,200 dairy workers, and represents a milestone many years in the making.  In the words of one worker, who reflected on the path ahead when discussing the changes he was already seeing on the job:  “We’re benefiting from the program here, but there are plenty of workers still left out. It needs to expand to more companies because it’s something that protects us, that gets our backs.”

The members of Migrant Justice, even as they start the hard work of implementation on the farm, are continuing the fight to bring the Milk with Dignity Program to even more workers across the region.  Their Milk with Dignity Campaign continues!  If you’re interested in getting involved, make sure to sign up for action alerts and opportunities to get involved!