BURLINGTON — Members of Migrant Justice, an advocacy group that represents immigrant farmworkers, gathered in Leddy Park on Thursday to publicly call on Hannaford supermarkets to sign an agreement that aims to improve conditions for workers on dairy farms.
The “Milk with Dignity” program creates a legally binding agreement between larger corporations that purchase milk, and the farms that produce the milk, to address common labor issues in the dairy industry, like low wages, lack of safety equipment and inadequate housing for immigrant workers — which have been exacerbated by declining milk prices and farm consolidation.
Thursday also marked the two year anniversary of Ben & Jerry’s becoming the first major corporation to sign the agreement.
Abel Luna and Marita Canedo, Migrant Justice leaders, led the event with loud speakers and talking to the crowd in Spanish and English.
Luna, speaking in Spanish, and Canedo, in English, said since the “Milk with Dignity” program began, more than 300 dairy workers in Vermont and New York have seen their wages increased, negotiated for paid time off and sick leave, and been given vacation days, improved housing, increased safety equipment and more.
“More than $370,000 have been used to comply with the code of conduct, to raise wages, for sick days, for days off and for improvements to the life of the workers,” they said. “But we are still hungry and we want more of this program and we need to expand so that’s why we are here.”
The crowd of roughly 50 burst into chants of “Sí se puede,” or “Yes we can!”
Migrant Justice has been working in the past two months to have Hannaford supermarket join the program. Owned by Dutch multinational corporation Ahold Delhaize, the company sees $75 billion in global sales, much of which comes from their nearly 200 supermarkets in the Northeast. According to Migrant Justice, Hannaford is a large purchaser of regional dairy products for their store-brand milk.
Hannaford’s parent company is already part of another program, the Fair Food Program, which creates similar goals and agreements for tomato farmers. Rosi Alfaro, a dairy farm worker in central Vermont and leader of Migrant Justice, urged Hannaford to sign the Milk with Dignity agreement to create similar opportunities at dairy farms that supply the store-brand milk.
After several Migrant Justice members spoke, the crowd gathered signs and started to march down Leddy Park Road towards the Hannaford store on North Avenue, chanting and cheering the whole way.
The group gathered in front of the supermarket, where store manager John Michaelides met them.
Migrant Justice asked Michaelides to give a letter to Hannaford CEO Mike Vail, urging him to join the Milk with Dignity program. To date, Vail has not responded to Migrant Justice’s requests.
Michaelides listened to what the members had to say, took the letter and shook hands with the member who gave it to him, but did not address the crowd.
Migrant Justice was created 10 years ago, following the “preventable death” of a dairy farm worker. Companies and farms who sign on to the program agree to a code of conduct to improve the lives of immigrant farmworkers. Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium to the farms it purchases dairy from, while the farms are subject to annual inspections from a third party organization.
In a statement released before the event, Ben & Jerry’s said in a statement that “‘Milk with Dignity’ contributes to positive outcomes on dairy farms enrolled in the program and is good for farmworkers, farmers, corporations and consumers.”
Three national religious groups — the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the USA and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call of Human Rights — have all sent letters to Vail urging him to sign the agreement.
Matt Maxwell runs a large dairy farm in Newport, Maxwell’s Neighborhood Farm, where his employees milk 800 cows and tend to 1,000 acres of grass and 700 acres of corn. His farm has been part of the Milk with Dignity program since 2018, and has eight full-time immigrant workers.
“We wanted to provide our employees with adequate pay, and adequate housing,” Maxwell said. “We wanted them to have a better quality of life.”
Since joining the program, Maxwell said he has an 85% employee retention rate, weekly meetings with his employees, and overall improved morale on the farm.
“Our employees now have much easier access to health care and social services that in the past were not available,” Maxwell said.
A survey Migrant Justice conducted of immigrant farmworkers in between 2018 and 2019 at farms outside of the program found that there is still much work to be done. Alfaro announced to the crowd that 96% of workers handle dangerous chemicals while over 70% said they don’t have access to a first aid kit on the job. Animals have kicked or otherwise injured over 70% of workers. Among other survey results, only 9% of workers surveyed said their farm has a policy against sexual harassment, while only 4% have recieved training to prevent sexual harassment.
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