Vermont dairy workers release report on “Milk with Dignity” success

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ST. ALBANS — Farmworker group Migrant Justice released a report today documenting the impact and successes of the first two years of operation of the organization’s Milk with Dignity Program.

The program’s first Biennial Report documents the transformations underway for over 260 workers on nearly 70 farms in Vermont and New York, accounting for more than 20 percent of Vermont’s dairy industry by volume.

The 68-page report includes data demonstrating improvements in labor and housing conditions under the program, as well as impactful stories from farmworkers and owners participating in the program.

Migrant Justice held a press conference in downtown St. Albans to announce the report’s release.

Dairy workers both inside and outside the program spoke, as did a dairy farm owner enrolled in Milk with Dignity, and representatives of Ben & Jerry’s and the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, the auditing organization formed to monitor conditions and enforce the program’s code of conduct.

“I used to work on a farm outside the program, where we worked 12 hour days without breaks for food, and where ten of us lived in a trailer infested with bed bugs. When the pipes froze in the winter, we would spend days without running water,” said farmworker Adrian. “Since I moved to a Milk with Dignity farm, there’s been a huge change. Everything is better: the pay, the hours, there’s enough space for all of us in the house and we aren’t cold in the winter. I want all farmworkers to be able to work in the conditions that I have now.”

Milk with Dignity was launched in 2018 following an agreement between Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s to implement the Milk with Dignity program in the company’s northeast dairy supply chain.

The agreement was heralded by the New York Times as a step to “improve migrant dairy workers’ conditions.”

“The most important takeaway of the Milk with Dignity Report is this: The pioneering effort – led by Vermont farmworkers and by Vermont farmers – is working,” said Cheryl Pinto, Values Led Sourcing Manager for Ben & Jerry’s. “And along with the accomplishments that are being collectively celebrated, we know there are improvements still to be made and we are committed to fully supporting that next chapter of progress.”

By joining Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program, Ben & Jerry’s committed to source an equivalent of 100 percent of its dairy purchases from farms that comply with a comprehensive, worker-authored code of conduct.

The company pays a premium to participating farms, Migrant Justice educates workers on their rights in the program, and a third-party auditor, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC), monitors farms’ compliance.

“With the program’s strong protections now in place, farmworkers have spoken freely about their working and housing conditions, in many cases overcoming fear and isolation that make it hard to speak up,” said MDSC Executive Director Tom Fritzsche. “Farmers in the program have engaged constructively in this new process for transparent monitoring and have contributed their ingenuity to work through challenges and to make improvements where they are needed. Working together, we have set an unprecedented example for the good that can be accomplished when a dairy buyer joins this program and gives farmworkers and farmers the tools they need.”

Following the press conference, Migrant Justice led a group to a nearby Hannaford supermarket to deliver the report to the store manager.

Similar delegations of farmworkers and program supporters occurred at 24 other Hannaford locations around the northeast, from Plattsburgh, NY to Portland, ME.

For the past year, Migrant Justice has publicly called on supermarket chain Hannaford to follow Ben & Jerry’s lead by joining Milk with Dignity, committing to source its store-brand milk from farms enrolled in the program.

Hannaford has claimed to have implemented standards of engagement requiring suppliers to “treat workers fairly” but has yet to take meaningful action to address the documented abuses in its dairy supply chain.

Migrant Justice’s campaign has received support from national faith organizations, labor groups, agricultural organizations, and thousands of individuals who have taken action over the past year.