The undocumented workers, most of whom are from Mexico and Guatemala, say Vermont dairy farms require them to work long hours and do not pay fair wages.
Workers from local dairy farms marched in Burlington on Saturday to the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop on Church Street, as part of a campaign to “restore dignity” to dairy farming.
Migrant Justice, a workers rights group, organized the protest in Burlington as part of a nationwide campaign in 16 cities called the “Milk with Dignity Program.” The activists are demanding that Ben & Jerry’s sign a pledge guaranteeing workers minimum wage and time off.
Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim and Migrant Justice, the nonprofit organization advocating for migrant workers’ rights and justice, have agreed to work out a code of conduct for the treatment of migrant workers.
The migrant workers who participated in the rally Saturday work on dairy farms in Vermont that supply milk to Ben & Jerry’s. One of the workers, Victor Diaz, spoke at the rally and handed a letter to Rob Michalak, global director of social mission at Ben & Jerry’s.
Diaz, originally from Chiapas, Mexico, has worked in the dairy farming industry for four years and in the Vermont dairy farm industry for three years. He currently works at a dairy farm in Vergennes.
Diaz said in Spanish that workers went ahead with the rally to show Ben & Jerry’s that they will be going “all the way to the finish line with an agreement.”
A small group at the rally, including Diaz and Brendan O’Neill, the founder of Migrant Justice, went into the scoop shop to hand the letter to Michalak.
“We’re here to leave a letter to encourage you to keep working with us,” Diaz said, translated by O’Neill.
The letter, addressed to Solheim, was signed by 45 representatives of organizations that O’Neill referred to as the “Milk With Dignity Coalition.”
“We understand that many dairy farmers are also facing serious economic challenges and are in need of economic relief,” the authors of the letter wrote. “The Milk with Dignity program rewards those farms that have it right by having corporate participants pay more down the supply chain to both the farmer and the farm worker. We anticipate many farms to enthusiastically support this initiative.”
Back outside, their rally chant changed from “Si, se puede” (Yes, we can) to “Si, se pudo” (Yes, we did). One end goal for Diaz is to guarantee Vermont minimum wage for all the state’s dairy farm workers.
Michalak said many of Vermont’s dairy farms pay minimum or higher wages.
Surveys conducted by Migrant Justice and the farm workers don’t match the company’s assertion.
Diaz said workers also need better housing and days off for illness, holidays and vacations.
“We have workers who don’t get a single day off a week,” Diaz said.
A lot of the workers supported by the campaign work 12 to 14 hours in a day, according to the letter. Without a single day off, that could be anywhere between 84 and 98 hours in a week.
Decisions about how many hours employees work is really up to the employer, Michalak said.
“It’s not as clear cut as their rallying cry makes it out to be, though I can understand why they have a rallying cry,” Michalak said.
Following the agreement that was reached on Friday, Michalak said that the rally was not really necessary to get Ben & Jerry’s to continue to work with them in the contract negotiations and that the June 19 agreement was more for Migrant Justice’s benefit as “they probably believe that written commitments are more powerful than verbal commitments.”
“We’ve been working with them,” Michalak said. “I mean we’ve always been working toward social justice and economic justice. I guess it makes sense that Migrant Justice felt that it was necessary for the community to hear the voices of the migrant workers, and I can understand that.”
Michalak said the company will continue to work out negotiations with Migrant Justice.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the Ben & Jerry’s representative working with Migrant Justice and misspelled Victor Diaz’ surname.