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Made Here

10 years after 'Hide,' migrant farmworkers in Vt. are still seeking rights

Inside the lives of the migrant workers who sustain Vermont's iconic dairy farms.

The 2013 film "Hide," was produced in Middlebury, and focuses on the shared experiences of Latin American farmworkers. Many of these year-round workers are in the country without legal permission and lack a realistic immigration pathway, which can hinder basic activities like buying groceries. That's to say nothing of its impact on advocating for better working conditions or pay.

Migrant Justice is a Burlington-based advocacy organization that supports “economic justice and human rights” for farm workers across Vermont. Will Lambek of Migrant Justice recently joined host Jenn Jarecki to discuss "Hide" and the pressing issues facing Vermont's immigrant farmworkers. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Jenn Jarecki: The 2013 film, ‘Hide,’ introduces viewers to a range of issues confronting Vermont's immigrant farmworkers, from transportation challenges to extended working hours to wage theft. Are these still the most pressing issues migrant farmworkers face?

Will Lambek: Many of them are still present. We've made a lot of progress over the past decade in addressing those concerns. And immigrant farmworkers in Vermont have really led the charge to say we're here in the state. We deserve to be recognized and to fight to change the laws and policies to ensure that there is equal treatment in the state. So, there has been progress on all of those fronts, but more work is needed to be done to ensure that our human rights are truly being respected in Vermont.

Two men hold a megaphone and sign at a Migrant Justice protest
Terry J. Allen
Will Lambek (right)

Jenn Jarecki: Well, in that vein, Will, how does Migrant Justice serve farmworkers?

Will Lambek: Migrant Justice is an organization founded and led by the community of immigrant farmworkers. It's mostly folks coming from southern Mexico, living and working on dairy farms around the state. And our state's iconic dairy industry -- for the past several years -- has really been held up by the labor of this community. In 2009, a young farm worker named José Obeth was killed on a dairy farm in a preventable workplace accident. And his death was the spark that led this community to decide to come together and form Migrant Justice to be a voice to fight for human rights and economic justice.

Jenn Jarecki: What are one or two of Migrant Justice's major priorities right now as the organization advocates for better working conditions?

Will Lambek: The dairy industry in Vermont and around the country, unfortunately, relies on low pay, long hours and dairy workers suffer from a lack of protections of basic human rights, things that most other workers take for granted. Migrant Justice has created a program called Milk with Dignity, which is an effort to bring together workers, farm owners and the companies that are buying milk from these farms to collaborate on a solution to bring a better price to farms for their milk and then to use that money to fund increases in wages, benefits and better working and housing conditions.

Jenn Jarecki: Will, as you will know, it's currently illegal under state law for agricultural and domestic workers to collectively bargain, although that is something state lawmakers considered changing last year. I mean, you've spoken to it a little but what impact does this have on the communities you work with?

Will Lambek: Absolutely. Agricultural workers are excluded from so many things that other workers take for granted. They can't collectively bargain, they aren't guaranteed a state minimum wage or on some farms, even the federal minimum wage, there's no access to overtime. On most farms, things like sick pay, holiday pay, vacation pay are unheard of. That's why workers have had to create the solution of Milk with Dignity to improve conditions and protect their rights.

As you mentioned, there is a law right now, the Vermont PRO Act, which is in front of the House of Representatives, and we hope that that will pass. Among other things, that will extend the right to collectively bargain, to form a union to farm workers and domestic workers. And that would be an important step. These exclusions didn't happen by accident. In the 1930s when the current labor law regime was set up, who were the agricultural and domestic workers being left out of all of these rights? It was the descendants of enslaved people. And today we see that those industries or those economic sectors continue to be dominated by workers of color who are being denied these basic rights.

Protestors hold megaphones and signs outside of a Hannaford supermarket
Terry J. Allen
Protestors with Migrant Justice's Milk with Dignity campaign

Jenn Jarecki: Migrant Justice's social media has shown several demonstrations by workers have those helped in terms of gaining visibility or power?

Will Lambek: Absolutely. So, workers when they formed Migrant Justice, understood that if they want to be respected, if they want their rights to be taken seriously, they need to take collective action. They need to make themselves visible and put pressure on those who have the power and resources to make a change.

Jenn Jarecki: Will, talk to us about the relationship between Vermont's immigrant farming communities and Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

Will Lambek: In Vermont, there is ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement. As a border state, Vermont also has a significant presence of border patrol agents in the state. And that means that many farmworkers have to live in fear daily that an interaction with one of these agencies could result in their detention, their deportation, the separation from their families, their ability to make a living. And this isn't theoretical, this is happening every day in our state. Regularly, we get calls from people who were at the general store getting a sandwich on their break from work, they have a chance encounter with Border Patrol and end up being detained and put in deportation proceedings.

The dairy industry in Vermont and around the country, unfortunately, relies on low pay, long hours and dairy workers suffer from a lack of protections of basic human rights, things that most other workers take for granted.
Will Lambek

Jenn Jarecki: How does that relationship compare to the one that farmworkers have with local law enforcement?

Will Lambek: Farmworkers have fought hard to ensure that encounters with the police aren't going to result in them being turned over to ICE or Border Patrol. This used to be regular practice in the state where you would get stopped on a traffic violation, and then the police would call Border Patrol to the scene and you could end up being detained and deported. Currently, the state has a Fair and Impartial Policing policy that every department in the state has to adopt. But unfortunately, that policy was watered down during the Trump administration and has many loopholes, which means that interactions with law enforcement in the state can still result in people being turned over to deportation agencies.

Jenn Jarecki: If you could leave listeners outside of this community with a single thought that may not be so obvious to them, what would it be?

Will Lambek: I think it's important for listeners to realize that the dairy industry, which is so economically consequential in our state, which is so culturally important, it's so iconic to what it means to be a Vermonter, is being sustained by the labor of a community of immigrants who are denied so many basic rights. And if we want our dairy industry to survive and to thrive, we need to align ourselves with this community of workers who are saying that they deserve to be treated just like anybody else. And we saw this clearly during the pandemic, where farm workers were considered essential workers. Nobody took a break from milking cows during COVID. They worked through putting their health and their lives at risk. And if their work is deemed essential, then their rights should be deemed essential as well.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

"Hide" premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel on Thursday, March 14 at 8:00 p.m.

As Director of Content Partnership, Eric works with individuals and organizations to make connections leading to more Vermont stories. As Producer of the Made Here series, Eric partners with filmmakers from New England and Quebec to broadcast and stream local films. Find more info here: