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Farmworkers reach agreement with Ben & Jerry's

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(Read caption) Migrant workers hired by Field Force, a Woodburn-based labor contractor, harvest bell peppers on a farm just North of Woodburn

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Food justice organizers recently reached an important agreement with Ben & Jerry’s to recognize the fundamental human rights of migrant workers in dairy supply chains. A statement by Ben & Jerry’s upheld the essential elements of the Milk With Dignity campaign, created by Migrant Justice and supported by other farm labor organizations such as Student Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

Migrant farmworkers in the dairy industry face wage theft, overcrowded and unsanitary housing conditions, and low wages within Ben & Jerry’s supply chain, according to Migrant Justice.

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Campaign leaders stressed the importance of organizing efforts to achieving campaign victories, noting that petition signatures, social media outreach, and solidarity actions built pressure nationwide and amplified the voices of farmworkers. Seventeen actions took place across the country on June 20, 2015, including a March and Rally for Dignity involving more than 200 people in Burlington, Vermont, home to the Ben & Jerry’s national headquarters.

Farmworker Victor Diaz was motivated to share his story of deplorable housing conditions through the Milk With Dignity campaign, explaining, "I came to this farm over two years ago. I lived in [a] camper with four people. The roof was leaking… at one point we were sleeping with nylon over us so the water would run off us."

Prior to the public launch of the campaign in May 2015, organizers were unsuccessful in their attempts to gain the attention of Ben & Jerry’s. “I see this as discrimination,” said Jose, a farmworker in Vermont. “It’s the norm where you earn poverty wages, and you’re excluded from many rights and protections, whether that’s minimum wage or overtime.” A Migrant Justice survey found that 20 percent of the 1,200-1,500 migrant laborers working in the Vermont dairy industry have their first paychecks illegally withheld, 40 percent are not earning Vermont’s minimum wage, and 40 percent have no day off.

Migrant laborers were previously unable to obtain drivers’ licenses, essentially stranding immigrant workers on dairy farms, forcing them to rely on employers for rides to get groceries and creating unfair power dynamics. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed a bill in June of 2013 allowing a new type of driver’s privilege card to be granted to illegal workers that provide crucial labor on dairy farms in Vermont.

The organizers and farmworkers called attention to these issues and created a national conversation about farmworker justice in the dairy industry through existing networks. According to farmworker Carlos Diaz, "after we were moved to better housing we felt better. We felt more rested. The farmer noted that production on the farm had improved.  I told him it was because we couldn't rest in our old overcrowded housing conditions.  So next we got together again, all the workers, and we asked for a raise. We got more than a raise. We got paid vacations and bonuses. We now have respect and work together collaborating for the good of the farm."

The organizing effort was accelerated and supported by past successes in achieving incremental campaign wins for farmworker justice. According to Farmworker organizer Kike Balcazar, the Milk With Dignity campaign, modeled after the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food, similarly “calls upon the corporations that profit from all the work on the farm to pay premiums to farmers who abide by farmworkers' Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct." The campaign, four to five years in the works, was based on the tenants of worker-driven social responsibility.

Victor Diaz was also inspired by the success of the Campaign for Fair Food, recognizing that “they had over 12 agreements with major corporations. All of this gave me a vision and hope that right here in Vermont we could walk our own similar path and win Milk with Dignity.”

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Migrant Justice hopes that the statement by Ben & Jerry’s is the beginning of a larger movement to secure permanent negotiation processes with more companies that exploit dairy supply chains, and to push for wider adoption of the campaign framework. 

This article originally appeared in Food Tank.