Amidst the factory farms and genetically modified Frankenfoods of America’s agricultural landscape, the dairy farms of Vermont’s rolling hills have always stood apart as emblems of bucolic innocence. And Ben & Jerry’s has long been the quintessential Vermont brand, built on wholesome corporate values and hippie sensibilities by the pint. But labor advocates say the ice-cream empire’s socially minded branding is greased with the sweat of an exploited workforce, rotten with poverty wages, squalid housing, and abusive bosses. So immigrant workers are barnstorming Vermont’s dairy industry to demand Milk with Dignity.
The grassroots group Migrant Justice launched the Milk with Dignity (MWD) campaign last year to push a comprehensive labor monitoring plan for the dairy labor force, which would establish standards on wages and labor conditions set by workers themselves, supported by independent auditing, worker education, and a scheme for equitable profit-sharing among workers and farmers. The system is modeled on the Fair Food program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has successfully organized across the supply chain, wholesale to retail, to raise wages and broadly improve labor conditions on Florida tomato fields. For Vermont’s 868 dairy farms, with some 1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers, MWD seeks not only higher wages but also decent housing and leave times, protection from discrimination and greater autonomy and a say in their working conditions.
According to Migrant Justice’s survey of 172 dairy workers, about 40 percent earned less than the state minimum wage of about $9. Roughly a third observed that they were treated worse than US-born workers. And with workweeks averaging about 60 to 80 hours and frequent injuries, the labor conditions were not only harsh but also hostile, with some reporting verbal abuse and being denied medical care or even a break for the bathroom or eating. But Migrant Justice, which has campaigned to protect migrants from police mistreatment and deportation, knows abuses often go unreported, since workers are intimidated by a system that offers little protection or recourse.
Worker and activist Victor Diaz recalls in a video interview how he endured harrowing workplace injuries, like getting lacerated by an exploding milk bottle, and “inhumane” housing conditions living with three coworkers in a shoddy cramped trailer: “It was not a dignified livelihood for a worker that spends 12, 13, 14 hours working everyday, to try to rest in a space like that…impossible!… And one day we decided to leave, enough was enough” Though they would lose the first paychecks that their boss had illegally withheld, they decided, “we couldn’t keep being slaves to this.”