Wednesday, June 28, 2017
Vermont Dairy Workers Demand Justice and Human Rights – Will Ben & Jerry’s Respond?
By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute
In February 2016, this blog highlighted an exciting development for Vermont dairy workers: Ben & Jerry’s made a formal agreement to cooperate with dairy workers, led by Migrant Justice, to join a worker driven social responsibility (WSR) program, known as Milk with Dignity. That commitment was made in 2015 – over two years ago. Yet, Milk in Dignity is not yet in place. Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s continue to negotiate the terms, but the process has been slow, and progress is lacking.
The stakes continue to be high for farmworkers in Vermont. Farm hours are long, and sometimes workers get no days off. Many workers are not even afforded eight consecutive hours off at a time. Pay is abysmal. Housing is substandard and injuries are common. Indeed, Migrant Justice was founded in response to the death of dairy worker, José Obeth Santiz Cruz. In 2009, Cruz died in a workplace accident when his clothes got stuck in a machine and strangled him. In response, dairy workers decided to take collective action to prevent similar travesties from occurring in the future, and improve overall farm conditions. One Migrant Justice member recently offered a compelling and personal snapshot of what dairy work can be like, and his motivation to advocate for change:
“My dad taught me how to milk cows. My first time in the barn, I thought I would pass out from the stench. It was scary working among the cows, getting knocked around by huge animals. Because there were no jobs available at the farm where my dad worked, I had to find work at a farm an hour away. At just 17, I was living and working by myself in a small farm on a back road in an unknown country, facing my first Vermont winter. Waking up at 3 a.m. to start my first shift, I’ve never felt so isolated. The farmer had me working 12 to 15 hours a day, with no day off. At the end of my first week, my body aching from over 80 hours of hard labor, I received my first paycheck and couldn’t believe what I saw: $350, or just over $4 per hour. At that time, I had no idea what the minimum wage was, but I knew that it wasn’t fair pay for the work I had done.”
Migrant Justice sees the Milk with Dignity Program as the key means to improve conditions so that dairy workers can live and work with dignity. Key components of the Program, which are calibrated to foster transformative change, are spelled out in a legally binding agreement, and include:
- workers’ central role in designing the program to best protects workers’ human rights, including through a detailed code of conduct for farms;
- continuous and independent monitoring to encourage compliance and ensure that breaches of the code are effectively investigated and addressed, coupled with farmworker education about their rights;
- accountability mechanisms to remedy violations of the code of conduct, with concrete market consequences where farms fail to make improvements;
- economic incentives for farmer participation: Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium to farms in good standing with the Code of Conduct, and this benefits the farm owners and farmworkers.
Over a dozen human rights organizations, including the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, the, FIDH, and Human Rights Watch, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights have endorsed the key elements of the Milk With Dignity Program, in a recent letter calling on Ben & Jerry’s to join the Milk with Dignity Program and describing how the Milk with Dignity Program implements human rights principles.
Last weekend, on the two year anniversary of Ben & Jerry’s initial agreement to cooperate, Migrant Justice and allies from across the country held a day of action to demand that Ben & Jerry’s make good on its commitment and put the Milk with Dignity Program into practice. More than 100 supporters made a 13 mile trek through Vermont, ending at Ben & Jerry’s Factory, where they delivered the human rights letter.
The March was a success. It drew broad support, received some excellent media coverage, and may be an important catalyst for progress implementing the Milk with Dignity Program. Unfortunately, celebration was cut short by the news that two of the marchers were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on their way back to the farm where they work. Sadly, this scenario is becoming somewhat routine for Migrant Justice. Just last month two other prominent Migrant Justice members were arrested by ICE and served 10 days in jail before being released.
Routine border patrol stops, and the arrests of Vermont dairy workers put in sharp relief the precarious position of many farmworkers, and the challenges to worker advocacy. Farmworkers lack basic legal protections, and were intentionally excluded from the rights to organize and collectively bargain at the federal and state levels, meaning they have few avenues to vindicate their rights. This has always impeded efforts to improve conditions on farms. In recent months, the obstacles that farmworkers face have increased, with a sharp rise in federal targeting of communities perceived to be immigrant, Latino, and non-English speaking, of which ICE arrests are just one example.
As a colleague and I described in an op-ed : in the current political climate, it is even more important that corporations leverage their power and resources to fulfill their human rights responsibilities. I hope that Ben & Jerry’s is ready to step up - it would create a great model and an incentive for further positive corporate action.