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Milk With Dignity: the movement urging food suppliers to seek better work conditions on dairy farms

 Farmworkers with the Vermont-based Migrant Justice group hold signs outside of the Forest Ave. Hannaford in Portland. The group has been asking the company to join its Milk with Dignity program for more than two years.
Ari Snider
Farmworkers with the Vermont-based Migrant Justice group hold signs outside of the Forest Ave. Hannaford in Portland. The group has been asking the company to join its Milk with Dignity program for more than two years.

In late June, a group of sign-carrying farmworkers and activists gathered at a South Portland Hannaford to listen as Emilio described how the company had failed him.

Emilio works for a Vermont dairy farm that provides milk to Hannaford. He told the crowd that workers at his farm didn't have enough beds to sleep in. Another time, workers were fired for calling the police to report workplace violence.

Through an interpreter, Emilio said Hannaford was notified of both issues, but nothing was done.

"That's the complaint Emilio was sharing, they didn't find anything wrong with it," she said. "They just gave a recommendation to the boss."

Milk With Dignity is a worker-driven social responsibility movement that has been pressuring Hannaford to join for years. The group has a code of conduct that sets housing and working condition standards that companies and farms agree to follow. Those standards are enforced by an independent council of investigators and lawyers. In turn, the companies pay the farms a premium to improve worker conditions.

It was born after an employee died in a 2009 workplace accident at a Vermont farm suppling milk to Ben & Jerry's, the iconic Vermont ice cream brand. After years of negotiating and pressure, the company agreed to require suppliers to follow the code in 2017.

Cheryl Pinto, the company’s lead on the topic, said farmworkers have already seen results.

"We've seen this bump happening in their wages, as well as having additional cash that they receive," she said. "...They're happy with their schedules, because now there's sick days, there's holiday time, there's much more structure on that."

Milk With Dignity says 20% of Vermont's dairy industry participates in the program because of its involvement with Ben & Jerry's. But Pinto said more companies need to partner so it becomes an industry norm.

"When you're just one or two companies, by yourself doing it, you're bearing a lot of the cost and a lot of resources — it's very intense on a few farms," Pinto says.

That's why Milk With Dignity has been so focused on Hannaford, Maine's second largest private employer, with nearly 200 stores throughout the Northeast. In 2021,75 Hannaford shareholders signed a letter urging the company to join.

The campaign's visit to Maine came after years of trying to create better working conditions for agricultural workers through the Legislature. But those efforts often fail because farms say they will be too expensive or complicated to implement. Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, just vetoed the most recent effort — which would have increased farmworker pay to the state's minimum wage— last week, but created a working group to study the issue after a veto override failed.

At the same time, lawmakers have approved a $5.3 million bailout for dairy workers who have lost money due to volatile prices. The one-time payments to farmers in the Dairy Stabilization Program amounts to $1 per hundredweight of milk produced now through next summer.

If Hannaford joined Milk With Dignity, it could have a big effect on farmworkers here: the company sources 65% of its private-label milk here, a spokesperson said. But it has resisted calls to do so.

"If you focus on this one narrow group of stakeholders, and they get everything they want, how sustainable is that long-term because the farmers now feel like they don't have a voice," said George Parmenter, who leads Hannaford's health and sustainability department. "The cooperatives definitely don't have a voice. The producers don't have a voice."

Parmenter said Milk With Dignity's goal is admirable, but is too narrowly focused on worker concerns to be effective. He had a similar criticism of its focus on Hannaford, whose milk he says makes up a small portion of the dairy product sold on its shelves.

Hannaford requires farmers to follow the National Milk Producers Federation's monitoring program, called FARM. It is focused on dairy managers and includes its own second-party audit system. It also has a hotline workers can contact to report issues.

And Parmenter said Hannaford plans to conduct additional audits.

"This summer, we'll do independent, third-party audits of those assessments ... to make sure that what the second party is finding is what is actually occurring," he said.

But that tool is superficial at best, said Will Lambek, a spokesperson with advocacy group Migrant Justice. He argued FARM doesn't have a strong enough enforcement mechanism to make farmers improve working conditions. One of Milk With Dignity's requirements is that if poor conditions are not fixed, the company must stop buying milk from the offending farm.

"It is not designed and is in fact incapable of finding violations of workers rights on these farms, and then remedying those violations," he said of FARM.

Dairy workers are some of the more vulnerable agricultural workers, because the majority of them are not protected under federal workplace safety laws. An Occupational Safety and Health Administration budget rider dating back 47 years exempts farms with 10 employees or less from investigating workplace injuries.

That makes it difficult to know what working conditions here are like. The state's labor advocate for agricultural workers doesn't work with dairy workers, because they are considered year-round employees. A Maine Department of Labor spokesperson said housing condition concerns are reported to the local code enforcement officer.

Recent federal safety records and state wage violations did not show problems at dairy farms. When asked about conditions, Maine Farm Bureau Association executive director Julie Ann Smith had a brief answer.

"There are no issues with working, living conditions, or human rights for farm workers in Maine," she said.

But Marita Canedo with Migrant Justice said the work is inherently dangerous, and has heard from Maine farmers that they don't always get trained in best practices, or how to report problems. There's also discomfort around asking for sick time or time for medical appointments, she said.

"Most of people that migrate to a different country with a different language, they get into the job, because of a connection, and there is no complete knowledge of, you know, regulations or rights," she said.

Tom Fritzche leads Pine Tree Legal and is Milk With Dignity's former executive director. He says most farmers want their workplaces to be safe — but without regulations requiring them to spend the money to do so, might not focus on it. Milk With Dignity steps in where regulation fails, he said.

"If there's no inspection and no transparency, it's just hard for folks to make it a priority in a way that works for everybody on the farm," he said.

There isn't much transparency when it comes to understanding where the milk comes from. Milk from farms are sent to cooperatives, which then send the milk to bottlers. Hannaford deferred to HP Hood, which bottles its private milk brand. But Hood declined to name its supplier farms.

One farmer who does supply milk to Hannaford is Jenni Tilton-Flood, who owns Flood Brothers farm in Clinton. She uses the FARM tool to find issues on her farm, and said she meets with her workers every two weeks to talk about problems.

Tilton-Flood acknowledged that agriculture has challenges, but said dairy's unique nature of having year-round employees makes it more complicated. To really improve conditions, she said Maine needs to pass laws regulating the dairy industry, and farmers need to support their workers in the communities they live in.

"It's really hard to to focus on one aspect of their workday and then leave the rest to chance when they leave," she said.

Milk With Dignity is based on the Fair Food Program, which in turn sprung from a labor movement started in 1993 by a group of Florida tomato pickers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Fair Food Program launched in 2011, but it took years of campaigning and pressuring to get its first stakeholder on board. Its 14 partners now include Walmart and Trader Joe's.

Gerardo Reyes Chavez, an organizer with the coalition, said Milk With Dignity could see similar results as more consumers care about their food being ethically produced.

"It's something that adds value to their own brand," he said.

At the Hannaford rally in June, many protestors were from out of state. Others, like Seidy Casarubias, said she works for a farm in a small Maine town, but she was hesitant to name it.

Will Lambek translated for her: "I feel like the salary is good, the conditions are fine."

But, Casarubias says Hannaford should join Milk With Dignity, because she's heard stories of others suffering — and it's important for dairy workers to stand together.

Carol Bousquet contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 Maine Public. To see more, visit Maine Public.

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