Milk with Dignity: Farmworkers in the Northeast Rally for Human Rights

December 1, 2023

By Tim King

Federal, state and local governments, and many large corporations, along with international organizations such as the United Nations all agree, via laws, regulations and lofty statements, that workers have basic inalienable rights with respect to conditions such as minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. But many workers around the world and in the United States have those rights taken from them. That includes workers in some of the dairy barns in the Northeast.

“Employers routinely underpay farmworkers, among other workplace violations, but federal investigations into these problems have dropped to an all-time low, likely because of funding and staffing constraints,” write Daniel Costa and Philip Martin in the summary of a report released by the Economic Policy Institute on August 22, 2023.

“With a mere 810 investigators to protect all 165 million workers in the U.S., the Wage and Hour Division [of the Department of Labor] currently investigates fewer than 1% of farm employers per year,” the report continues.

If neither the government, with its rules and regulations, nor the corporations, with their claims of corporate social responsibility, are going to ensure the basic labor and human rights of workers, then workers will preserve them. That is precisely what dairy farmworkers in the Milk with Dignity program, based in Burlington, Vermont, are doing, according to Will Lambek, an organizer and spokesperson with Migrant Justice, and Jose Luis, a dairy farm worker from northern Vermont.

“Migrant Justice was founded in 2010 by immigrant farmworkers in Vermont, Maine and New York,” says Lambek. “The organization had an emphasis on the dairy industry and, in 2014, its worker members began to develop Milk with Dignity.”

Also in 2014, Migrant Justice surveyed 172 Vermont dairy farmworkers. That was, according to the organization’s website, approximately 10% of the state’s total population of migrant farmworkers. The survey found that 40% of the farmworkers received less than the Vermont minimum wage of $8.73 per hour at the time of the survey; 26% didn’t receive paystubs; and 40% didn’t have a day off. The survey also found that 30% of farmworkers had been injured on the job or had job-related illnesses. And, among other issues, including grossly substandard housing, 32% said they weren’t being treated equally as compared to their U.S.-born co-workers.

Over the next several years, driven by the knowledge of those injustices, Milk with Dignity developed a comprehensive multi-page code of conduct. The code makes clear, for employers and employees, what the rights of workers are and what the nature of a dignified and just relationship between workers and employers is.

Since the code was developed by workers, and not corporate consultants or legislative aides, it covers a wide range of issues dealing with workers’ rights and dignified relationships with supervisors and owners.

Wages; health and safety; and schedules, rest and leisure are three of the numerous categories of major rights that the code of conduct addresses. Each of these categories has multiple detailed and specific points to guide workers and employers. For example, the wages and related issues section details points dealing with the control and maintenance of time cards, minimum wages, and transparency regarding any wage withholding. Ten specific points under health and safety clearly outline that a farm health and safety plan should be developed in a collaboration between the farm owner and workers, and that workers should be provided with all necessary safety equipment at the employer’s expense.

A significant portion of the code lays out an enforcement system that includes regular third-party farm audits and a complaint hotline, referred to as a Worker Support Line, for workers to use without fear of retaliation. The document also sets up a system to collaboratively and quickly resolve complaints when there are violations. Finally, all of a farm’s workers must be allowed time to be educated about their rights under the code.

In addition to the code of conduct, workers created the nonprofit Milk with Dignity Standards Council. The MDSC, as an independent third party, is dedicated to the implementation, monitoring and enforcement of the Milk with Dignity program. That means it, among other activities, conducts on-farm audits and operates the phone line for workers to make complaints about code violations.

When farmworkers had completed a code of conduct that they were satisfied with, they didn’t take it back to the individual farms that they worked for. Instead, they took it up the supply chain, to the retail landscape where brands compete for consumer attention and loyalty.

“Most corporations only pay lip service to the notion that they hold responsibility for ensuring respect for the human rights of workers in their supply chains,” says Lambek.

Ben & Jerry’s, an international dairy products company founded and based in Vermont, is supplied by Dairy Farmers of America with butterfat from numerous Vermont dairy farms for its products. They have spent years showing their customers that their brand’s motto — “We care about our ice cream from cow to cone” — and their commitment to corporate social responsibility is not mere lip service.

“When farmworkers created Milk with Dignity they invited Ben & Jerry’s to participate because of their stated beliefs,” says Lambek. “The company was already working with farms that supply it milk to address environmental and animal welfare issues through an existing program called Caring Dairy.”

According to Lambek, it took significant pressure from farmworkers and their allies before the company agreed to enroll in the Milk with Dignity program. Ben & Jerry’s was contacted for an interview but did not respond to questions.

“It took three years before they signed an agreement,” says Lambek. “Migrant Justice held rallies, conducted call-ins to Ben & Jerry’s, and held demonstrations before they joined in 2017. As a result, by early 2018, enough farms had enrolled in Milk with Dignity to account for more than 100% of Ben & Jerry’s Northeast supply chain, comprising roughly 20% of Vermont’s entire dairy industry by volume.”

After Ben & Jerry’s signed the agreement with Milk with Dignity, they contacted the dairy farmers who supplied them. “Once a farmer enrolled they started to get the premium for their milk [specified by the code of conduct] and used that money to start implementing the code,” says Lambek.

Milk with Dignity made a huge difference in workers’ lives, according to Migrant Justice.

“There have been so many changes,” Luisa, a farmworker, is quoted as saying in a testimonial on the Migrant Justice website. “We didn’t have a day off before, but now we get a day off — and vacations, too. I can spend more time with my baby. Before we never spoke up; now we have the freedom to speak, without any fear that we’ll be fired. I feel more secure knowing my rights and having all these benefits. Before nobody cared if we got sick. We had to work and if we couldn’t, that day was taken out of our paycheck. Now that we have Milk with Dignity, we’re paid that day.”

Milk with Dignity rally
Jesús, a worker on a dairy farm, addresses the crowd during a recent picket about a preventable workplace accident. Photos courtesy of Migrant Justice

Workers’ quality of life improved because the code of conduct requires employers to make a financial investment in their employees’ wellbeing. “In the first five years of the program, the premium resulted in over $3.4 million of farm investments in farmworker rights, including $315,000 passed through directly as Program Bonus payments, $2 million in raises to meet the state minimum wage, $445,000 in housing construction and improvements, $249,000 in paid vacation, holidays and sick leave, and $121,000 in safety improvements, including newly-provided fire safety devices, first aid supplies, personal protective equipment, and paid training,” says Lambek.

When Jose Luis, the farmworker from northern Vermont, was asked if it’s his experience that Milk with Dignity helps workers protect their rights and improves their lives he quickly said, “Absolutely!” Then he was initially at a loss for words to enumerate the multitude of changes.

“Now we have time to sleep and rest,” he says. “We have a day every week to rest,” he repeats, emphasizing the point for those of us who take a day of rest for granted. “We also have personal protection equipment that we don’t have to buy ourselves.”

Jose Luis is delighted that Milk with Dignity has given him the opportunity to reclaim his rights, but he worries about other dairy farmworkers.

“I know many people on farms who work long hours, seven days a week and have atrocious living conditions,” says Jose Luis. “They have never heard of a vacation or a holiday, and they have no sick leave or safety benefits.”

“After reaching an accord with Ben & Jerry’s, the farmworkers asked themselves what’s next,” says Lambek. “After quite a bit of study and discussion they decided to invite Hannaford to enroll because of their strong and positive community reputation. In 2019 the workers sent Hannaford an invitation letter and, when they didn’t get a response, they started to publicly call on the company to join the program that fall.”

By the spring of 2023 Migrant Justice and its allies were marching and picketing Hannaford stores across the Northeast, including in Maine.

Maine Youth Power is an ally that helped coordinate an action at a Hannaford store in Belfast, Maine. “We are in solidarity with Milk with Dignity because both of our organizations are working for human dignity and access to a livable future,” says Phoebe Dolan of Maine Youth Power. “Both farmworkers and youth should be treated as legitimate members of society.”

Dolan says her organization has coordinated two Milk with Dignity actions, which she describes as “pretty successful.”

“In June we had a really exciting action,” says Lambek, referring to another action. “Hundreds of people started marching at one Hannaford store and walked all the way to another.”

The marching and picketing continued into the autumn but Hannaford, and its European parent, didn’t show any signs of joining the program.

“We differ with Migrant Justice in our approach to the solution to the vulnerabilities and challenges unique to migrant farmworkers,” says Ericka Dodge, director of external communications and community relations at Hannaford. “The concerns and issues facing agricultural workers are systemic, complex and extend far beyond Hannaford’s supply chain and the state of Vermont. The Milk with Dignity program is focused on a very small portion of the U.S. dairy supply chain, both in terms of its geographic footprint as well as the number of stakeholders involved. Because of the complexity and scope of the issues facing migrant farmworkers, we do not feel this approach is scalable. Nor do we feel that these issues can be solved with a patchwork of loosely affiliated programs, like Milk with Dignity, working independently.”

Based in Scarborough, Maine, the 140-year-old Hannaford chain is Maine’s second-largest private employer and has nearly 200 supermarkets throughout the Northeast. Now owned by the Dutch-Belgian multinational corporation Ahold Delhaize, its retail brand is highly trusted by thousands of Mainers.

The Hannaford label has a history of supporting social justice issues through public statements as well as via products on sale in its stores. For example, Hannaford sells fair trade coffee and chocolate and, on its website, speaks about how fair trade has “lifted up” farmers and workers in the global south.

Hannaford also has made a firm commitment to the welfare of the animals in its dairy supply chain. “Hannaford is a passionate supporter of the well-being and welfare of farm animals. We are continuously refining our approach and seeking to improve sustainability and transparency within our supply chain,” the company’s website states.

Migrant Justice doesn’t believe that dairy workers in the Hannaford dairy supply chain are getting that same passionate support that the cows are.

“Many corporations, including Hannaford’s parent company, Ahold Delhaize, point to ‘The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’ as the north star for corporate responsibility. Ahold’s self-presentation is full of these types of pledges,” says Lambek. “However, our analysis shows that Hannaford’s measures fail to meet the UNGP.”

Lambek says Hannaford’s employee complaint line, called the Speak-up Line, is one example of their failure to meet U.N. human rights principles.

Migrant Justice monitored 10 complaints lodged by workers on the Speak-Up Line over 10 months, according to a report on the Migrant Justice website. The complaints involved violence, retaliation, inhumane housing conditions, health and safety violations, reports of 14-hour shifts without breaks, and discrimination. The report states that none of the complaints resulted in any meaningful communication with the workers who made them, and none resulted in a resolution of the complaint.

The U.N. standards say grievance procedures, such as the Speak-up Line, should be legitimate, transparent and based on engagement and dialogue, says Lambek. He and Jose Luis feel Hannaford’s grievance line is none of those.

Two workers on a farm enrolled in the Milk with Dignity program.

Dodge says of the complaints monitored by Migrant Justice, “We don’t discuss the specific allegations or finding of individual cases, but we can assure you that each report was investigated and we took action where needed. We believe Mr. Lambek’s assessment of the Speak-Up Line is not an accurate, fair, or constructive representation of what it is and how it works.”

Jose Luis says he had better results when he lodged a complaint on the Milk with Dignity Worker Support Line than workers had with the Speak-Up Line. “I didn’t have to leave a message,” says Jose Luis. “When I called the Worker Support Line, I talked to someone immediately and described the problem. Right away the next morning someone came out. They solved the problem that morning.”

Jose Luis says he believes Hannaford will eventually see the error of its ways. The workers simply have to keep campaigning and educating the company and the public like they did for Ben & Jerry’s.

“The workers are hopeful that we can talk with Hannaford and that they will enroll,” he says. “Right now, we’re putting together complaints from workers to show to Hannaford and the public. When they see the truth we think they will have no choice but to enroll.”

“Our message to their executives is to come and work a shift and see what the workers have to put up with,” says Jose Luis. “Then come to our homes to see how bad our living conditions are. It’s true that we work with animals but we are people, and we deserve dignity and our human rights.” 

About the author: Tim King is a produce and sheep farmer, a journalist and cofounder of a bilingual community newspaper. He lives near Long Prairie, Minnesota.

This article was originally published in the winter 2023-24 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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