Editor’s note: This commentary is by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, who is the director of the Human Rights in the U.S. Project of Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and Benjamin Hoffman, the senior clinical teaching fellow of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic.
Ben & Jerry’s became famous for their original, quirky ice cream flavors, and their corporate commitment to social and environmental justice. When President Trump issued the first iteration of his “immigration ban,” Ben & Jerry’s was among the companies that stood up to denounce it, claiming — rightfully so — that the policy was an “assault on the American values of inclusion and respect,” and emphasizing the importance of immigrants to our global economy. But close to home, the Vermont-based ice cream maker is not fully living up to those values. Across Vermont, ice cream’s key ingredient, milk, is sourced from numerous farms where the largely immigrant workforce endures harsh conditions and human rights violations. Ben & Jerry’s has yet to do everything in its power to stop abuses in its supply chain, though it is currently presented with a unique opportunity to do so.
On many dairy farms, workers live in inhumane housing and rarely get eight hours off in a row, so they are unable to get a full night’s sleep. Many dairy workers also go weeks, in some cases even years, without a day off. The conditions are often dangerous and injuries and fatalities are all too common. Further, many workers earn below minimum wage, and are denied payment for their work with alarming regularity.
This month marks two years since Ben & Jerry’s made a public commitment to join a program to change these conditions. The program, known as “Milk with Dignity,” was developed by dairy workers across Vermont after an 18-year-old worker was killed on the job in a preventable accident in 2009. The program includes a code of conduct for dairy farms to ensure workers’ human rights and improve conditions, as well as continuous and independent monitoring. However, in order for this program to become a reality, corporations like Ben & Jerry’s must put their purchasing power behind workers’ human rights.
The commitment from Ben & Jerry’s, one of the largest purchases of Vermont milk, was a major breakthrough. By joining the program, Ben & Jerry’s would prioritize purchasing milk from farms that comply with the code of conduct, and would agree to pay an increased price for this milk — creating exactly the right economic incentives and opportunities for farms to make needed reforms.
Unfortunately, over the past two years, while Ben & Jerry’s has been willing to talk, it has not yet taken the necessary action to implement the program. Meanwhile, unjust and harmful conditions persist, and workers continue to bear the cost. And under the Trump administration, things are getting worse.
Across Vermont, ice cream’s key ingredient, milk, is sourced from numerous farms where the largely immigrant workforce endures harsh conditions and human rights violations.
Farmworkers have long faced obstacles to securing their basic rights. They are excluded from federal and many states’ legal protections for the rights to organize and collectively bargain — rights afforded to most other workers — leaving little recourse when farmworker human rights are violated. As a workforce comprised largely of racial and ethnic minorities and non-English speakers, who may lack U.S. citizenship or formal immigration status, farmworkers also face heightened discrimination and isolation. The conditions are ripe for abuse.
Now, to make matters worse, the Trump administration is undermining Vermont dairy workers’ efforts to organize and secure basic rights. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have directly targeted leaders of Migrant Justice — the organization at the forefront of efforts to improve conditions on dairy farms in Vermont — arresting two of its leading campaigners for immigration reasons as they left Migrant Justice’s office, and holding them for 10 days before they were released on bail.
As the federal government is forging a frontal attack on rights, it is vital that corporations, which have the power to create positive change, uphold their human rights responsibilities. Yet Ben & Jerry’s has not yet taken the action needed to improve working and living conditions for dairy workers in its own supply chain.
There is no excuse for inaction. Indeed, the Milk with Dignity Program provides a blueprint for action with proven positive results. A similar approach has been used to transform conditions on Florida tomato farms, where farmers, farmworkers and retail food companies participate in a Fair Food Program developed by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Over a dozen international human rights organizations — including Human Rights Watch and the ACLU — recently endorsed the key components of the Milk with Dignity Program in a letter to Ben & Jerry’s, emphasizing that by joining the program, the company would establish itself as an industry leader, and take an important step toward fulfilling its commitment to protect workers’ basic dignity and human rights. Ben & Jerry’s has yet to respond.
As the two-year anniversary of Ben & Jerry’s commitment to join the Milk with Dignity Program approaches Saturday, Vermont dairy workers and human rights advocates will be watching to see if Ben & Jerry’s makes good on its commitment, and puts into practice a program which would eliminate the human rights violations from its ice cream.