Dairy workers call on Ben and Jerry’s to give them better hours and fair wages

They’re calling to implement a ‘Milk with Dignity’ program.

Young dairy cattle are gathered in a barn Thursday Sept. 4, 2014, in East Montpelier, Vt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilson Ring
Young dairy cattle are gathered in a barn Thursday Sept. 4, 2014, in East Montpelier, Vt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wilson Ring

This week, dairy workers are using an annual ice cream giveaway day by Ben and Jerry’s to bring awareness to the long, hard hours and low wages that many in the industry face.

In the state of Vermont and across the country, dairy workers and supporters of migrant farmworkers rallied outside the ice cream company’s storefronts on Tuesday to call attention to what they say are human rights abuses in the dairy supply chain.

Migrant workers called on Ben and Jerry’s — a company known for its progressive values — to implement the “Milk with Dignity” program as part of an agreement the company signed in 2015 to ensure that the cooperatives supplying the milk would improve the quality of life for migrant workers, such as providing a weekly day off, improving health and safety conditions, and alleviating overcrowded housing issues, among other labor conditions.

Two years out, Ben and Jerry’s has yet to implement the initiative despite sourcing its milk from cooperatives that may not care about the abuses of dairy workers. The ice cream company also placed partial blame on the advocacy group Migrant Justice for being slow to finalize the draft agreement.

“We’ve been working diligently with them since then on the details of how to successfully operationalize the program, which still needs finalizing,” a recent Ben and Jerry’s statement read. “We strongly support the goals of Milk with Dignity and believe that a worker led program is the best way to protect the rights and dignity of the workers on Vermont’s dairy farms. We remain committed to the agreement we signed and are continuing to work towards a successful conclusion with Migrant Justice.”

Thelma Gomez, a Migrant Justice member, is one of many Vermont dairy workers who want to see better conditions for people in their industry. Her husband, who works on a dairy farm that sells to the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which Ben and Jerry’s buys from, has worked seven days a week for the past two years because he doesn’t have any days off from work. As a result, he has missed out on crucial life milestones of their twin three-year-old daughters.

Gomez’s husband is far from alone. According to a 2014 survey of 172 dairy farmworkers across the state of Vermont, 40 percent of workers said they didn’t get weekly days off. Another 40 percent said they weren’t paid the Vermont state minimum wage; farmworkers aren’t covered by federal and most states’ wage laws. And 30 percent of workers reported overcrowded housing.

The dairy industry has come to rely on undocumented immigrant labor partly because Americans don’t want to do the work, but also because agricultural visas only cover seasonal work, which excludes the year-round dairy work process. As a result, some of the 1,500 immigrant dairy workforce in Vermont are exploited by employers to conduct harsh labor.

“These are undocumented workers who are filling this labor need because farms in Vermont have had to grow and consolidate in order to deal with the fluctuating prices in the industry,” Will Lambeck, a staff member with the Migrant Justice, told ThinkProgress. “[Farms] are growing but they’re still relying on cheap labor to get the job done, relying on workers who will work 60, 70, 80 hours a week without breaks, without days off, for what’s often pay below minimum wage.”

“Those are, by and large, undocumented workers,” Lambeck added.

Advocate Enrique “Kike” Balcazar (pronounced “Kee-kay”), a 24-year-old Mexican immigrant, helped establish the “Milk with Dignity” program at Migrant Justice because he wanted to change the 60-to-80 hour work weeks that he regularly faced. Most recently, he made national news after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detained him as he was leaving the Migrant Justice office. Balcazar has since been released on bail and is now awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge.

Though Lambeck would not comment on Balcazar’s immigration status, he believes ICE agents may have targeted Balcazar because he is a prominent organizer and frequently shows up for immigrant rights events.

The Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies have broadened enforcement priorities and empowered ICE agents to cast a wider net. Lambeck said he believes that the recent detention of Balcazar along with two other Vermont dairy workers was an intentional tactic to force immigrants to continue feeling “persecuted” and “precarious.”

“What ICE and the federal government wants, isn’t to deport every single immigrant in the country because they know that this country needs the labor of immigrant workers,” Lambeck said. “What the motivation of these sorts of attacks is and the federal policy behind them, is to create a class of that are so persecuted and so precarious in their status in this country that they accept conditions that they otherwise would not.”