Migrant Justice’s Milk With Dignity Program Fights for Fair Labor in Vermont

Migrant Justice’s Milk With Dignity Program Fights for Fair Labor in Vermont
From foodtank.com, by Nina Sparling

Vermont-based activist group Migrant Justice is working towards a launch of the Milk with Dignity Program. With the support of both the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) and the Fair Foods Standards Council (FFSC), the organization hopes to implement a Code of Conduct that will improve labor standards on dairy farms across the state.

The Milk with Dignity Program targets dairy buyers’ role in the human rights abuses on Vermont dairy farms. By keeping prices at unsustainable levels that stress the farmers’ finances, the companies that buy milk reinforce the abuse of farmworkers. There are about 1500 farmworkers on dairy farms in Vermont, many of whom are migrant laborers. According to a 2014 survey conducted by Migrant Justice, workweeks often range from 60 to 80 hours per week. Forty percent of workers have no time off and receive less than minimum wage. Racial profiling affects all workers.

The contemporary dairy industry in Vermont looks nothing like it did sixty years ago. “Fewer dairy farms, more cows per farm, and more milk per cow has been the general rule since the 1950s,” writes Bob Parsons, PhD. He goes on to explain how to remain competitive with farms in Western states; the Vermont dairy industry has become a “capital intensive…is high and profits are razor thin and volatile.” Migrant Justice makes visible how such volatility affects farmworkers as much as farmers through its efforts to “to initiate structural change in the dairy industry.”

The Milk with Dignity Program takes the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) program used by the CIW and the Fair Food Project (FFP) as its model. The CIW and FFP developed WSR in their campaigns to establish fair labor standards for migrant laborers working in Florida tomato fields. The Milk with Dignity Program has five key elements: farmworker-authored standards, education, a third-party monitoring body, economic relief, and legally binding agreements. In the WSR model, workers lead the fight to protect their rights. Workers set the standards for dignified labor.

Many of the dairy farms Migrant Justice targets sell milk to well-known companies like Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry’s. The organization points out how the invisibility of farmworkers in the dairy industry is at odds with the popularity—and economic importance—of ice cream sporting the fair trade label and a cooperative creamery. As Victor, a farmworker with Migrant Justice, said, “People don’t ask themselves ‘where does the milk come from?’…The cows don’t milk themselves.”

The word has gotten out, though. Last summer, Migrant Justice organized national day of action to pressure Ben & Jerry’s to negotiate. The reality of consumers and farmworkers alike demanding fair labor standards persuaded the company that they couldn’t stay inactive and silent. Ben & Jerry’s has agreed to join the program, a first step in assuring Milk with Dignity.

But, implementing worker-driven social responsibility takes time. It is a slow and deliberative process. Sitting across the table from one another, farmworkers and corporate executives frame the structures of a holistic system that sets, monitors, and enforces standards for fair labor in the industry. For now, Migrant Justice is focusing on this first agreement with Ben & Jerry’s. In the future, though, the organization will launch additional public campaigns directed towards other corporate buyers in Vermont—and beyond.  

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