Ben & Jerry’s ‘Milk With Dignity’ Pact With Farmworkers Seems To Be Paying Off

Some Vermont dairy workers say their wages and living conditions have improved, thanks to an agreement reached last year between the workers and Ben & Jerry's, a division of global consumer products company Unilever.

Times are tough on dairy farms around the country, with milk prices declining for the fourth year in a row. But 72 farms that supply Ben & Jerry's earn a little more by agreeing to follow labor and housing standards.

Enrique Balcazar is a former dairy farm worker and an activist with the group Migrant Justice who helped negotiate an agreement last year called Milk with Dignity.

Speaking through an interpreter, he said the two years of tough negotiation have paid off for farmworkers — and farmers.

"There are farmworkers in the state who, in collaboration with their farmers and with support from the Milk With Dignity Standards Council, are now receiving a day off every week when they previously didn't have one, who are receiving wages to bring their wages up to the Vermont minimum wage," he says.

The standards council administers the program. It can audit farms and respond to worker complaints.

Farms enrolled in the Milk with Dignity program also commit to providing five annual paid sick days, five paid vacation days and to meet housing health and safety standards.

Farmers get a premium for following these standards, but it's not clear how much. Ben & Jerry's says that's confidential. However, Cheryl Pinto, manager of values-led sourcing at Ben & Jerry's, says the premium makes a difference.

"Ben & Jerry's is paying the premium because we recognize a lot of farmers will need some of the financial support to improve housing conditions or to make up for the vacation days that they're going to provide workers," she says.

The ice cream maker gets its milk from the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which has about 300 members. The milk from the 72 farmers that participate in the Milk With Dignity program is processed at the St. Albans Co-op. But it's blended in with from milk from farms that do not adhere to the housing or labor standards. Pinto says the milk production from the 72 farms represents the volume of milk that Ben & Jerry's requires.

"If we had to segregate, it opens up a whole other space of work, and this way we were trying to lean in and work with as many as we could, and not have it limited to whoever wanted to be segregated," Pinto says.

The Milk with Dignity program covers all farmworkers whose farms are enrolled — and not just undocumented workers who work on many of Vermont's dairy farms. Pinto says farmers who participate are reluctant to go public with their support because of concerns about immigration enforcement.

Migrant Justice says the program is a model for other dairy processors. The advocates say they're talking to other national brands, but they would not name them.

This story comes to us from Vermont Public Radio. Listen to the audio here.

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