October 5th: a Dozen HUMAN RIGHTS CAN'T WAIT Actions and Counting
Posted Fri, 09/29/2017 - 9:37am
Vermont dairy workers came home this week following a 12-day speaking tour along the East coast. Workers traveled to 11 cities -- from Burlington to Washington, D.C. -- to draw attention to human rights abuses in the dairy supply chain of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In college lecture halls and community health centers, the farmworkers who put the cream in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream rallied students, workers, and faith leaders to call on the company to ensure fair working conditions by following through on their long-awaited commitment to the Milk with Dignity program on a national “Human Rights Can’t Wait” day of action planned for October 5th.
Audiences were shocked and moved after learning about the conditions faced by workers who supply the dairy products for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. On large dairy farms across the country in 2015, 41 dairy workers died, and another 6,700 experienced reported injuries -- a rate double the average of private industries as a whole. Sadly, because of the lack of regulation and enforcement on smaller farms, including most producers in Vermont, there is not accurate data oninjuries or deaths. However, worker's experiences, backed research, demonstrates that these smaller farms are definitely not free from and perhaps more prone to the serious health and safety hazards facing workers on dairy farms across the country.
On the heels of the speaking tour, the Washington Post ran a feature on the industry. The tragic headline says it all and confirms the desperate need for Milk with Dignity today:
At every stop of the tour, dairy workers shared personal stories of injuries and dangers. Juan shared that when he was applying formaldehyde to cow’s hooves earlier this year, the toxic chemical splashed into his face. Months later, his vision remains blurry and he suffers from persistent respiratory illnesses. Yaya spoke about chronic pain that she suffers two years after a kick from a cow left her injured. Rather than receiving workers’ compensation, she got stuck paying thousands of dollars in medical bills.
The dangers of the dairy industry are compounded by the grueling hours that are common on farms. Workers on the tour spoke about laboring up to 14 hours a day, at times without breaks, or at times in shifts split throughout the day, precluding 8 hours of consecutive rest. According to a 2014 survey of nearly 200 workers conducted by Migrant Justice, 40% of dairy workers in Vermont work seven days a week without ever having a day off. Many workers shared that after the long hours and difficult conditions, they return to overcrowded and inhumane housing conditions, with some living under the same roof as the cows they milk.
To eradicate these abusive and dangerous conditions, dairy workers in Migrant Justice have created a worker-led solution in the Milk with Dignity program. Modeled after the internationally-renowned Fair Food Program that has transformed the Florida tomato industry, Milk with Dignity recognizes that dairy brands such as Ben & Jerry’s are ultimately responsible for the conditions in their supply chains. By joining the program, corporations pay participating farms a premium and require that farms uphold a farmworker-authored code of conduct to ensure fair and dignified work and housing conditions. The program is monitored and enforced by an independent third party. This transformational program will support responsible farm owners with a premium for their milk and by creating uniform and enforceable standards--including improvement of health and safety measures, which is a life and death matter.
The Milk with Dignity program has garnered tremendous support. The national Presbyterian and Methodist churches, representing millions of parishioners, have issued statements lauding the program and urging Ben & Jerry’s: “do not delay any longer. Every day is a day that farmworkers continue to suffer, farms are stretched further, and your customers grow more impatient.” 15 renowned human rights organizations, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote in a statement that Milk with Dignity “promises ... transformational reforms for the dairy industry in Vermont, and presents a valuable opportunity for Ben & Jerry’s to establish itself as an industry leader.” And the country’s largest labor union, the National Education Association, recently awarded Migrant Justice their prestigious César Chávez Civil and Human Rights Award.
Despite mounting pressure, and despite repeated commitments to the program, Ben & Jerry’s has yet to take the final step signing on to the legally binding Milk with Dignity agreement. The company publicly signed an agreement of cooperation in 2015 and has reiterated support for the program’s principles, but has still not formally joined the program. On October 5th, in cities across the country, Ben & Jerry’s will be hearing from conscientious customers, workers, and allies once more that, when it comes to dairy workers in their supply chain, human rights can’t wait.