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31 May 2023

Derek Brouwer, Seven Days (USA)

Migrant workers hold up Vermont's dairy industry - and are fighting for better working conditions

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As many as 1,000 migrants work in [Vermont's] milking parlors and dairy barns, doing sometimes dangerous jobs for long hours and low pay, without labor protections that workers in other industries take for granted. Many don't earn overtime pay or even minimum wage. If they're hurt on the job, safety inspectors often don't investigate. Their lives are shaped every day by the risk of deportation. They live where few people look like them or speak their language.

As their numbers have grown, their presence has become more widely acknowledged. "You would have to be living under a rock at this point if you didn't know the dairy economy in Vermont was being sustained by [migrant] farmworkers," said Teresa Mares, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont who has studied their experiences. Migrant workers are staying on dairy farms for longer and putting down roots. They've organized to push for change and developed blueprints for less exploitative working conditions.

Yet their precarious labor arrangement remains largely unchanged ...


Delia, a 25-year-old Mexican woman ... doesn't dare to speak up about problems, even when her safety is at stake.

"There are a lot of times when you get kicked by a cow, but you don't want to say anything, because it's not like there's going to be anybody who can come and cover your shift," she said. "You don't want to lose that day's pay or have them fire you."

U.S. labor laws explicitly exclude agricultural workers from minimum wage, overtime pay and collective bargaining rights. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which enforces workplace safety standards, generally does not investigate injuries on small farms — even when workers are maimed or killed. As a result, the vast majority of dairy farms operate outside OSHA enforcement, a recent analysis by the food news website Civil Eats found, even though dairy work is hazardous.

Some states have inspected small farms themselves; Vermont does not.


For nearly a decade, Migrant Justice has pushed to improve working conditions on dairy farms by pressuring companies that buy Vermont milk. Its Milk With Dignity campaign is built on a set of enforceable workplace standards called a code of conduct. Companies can commit to buying milk from farms that adhere to the code — and to paying those farmers a premium price.

The approach, modeled on one that Florida vegetable pickers created, acknowledges that farmers themselves are largely at the mercy of broader market forces. "What I find really compelling," Mares, the UVM anthropologist said, "is that it looks to those who hold the most power in our food system — which is typically large-scale corporate buyers — as the entities that actually need to pay for those improvements."

In 2017, Ben & Jerry's became the first — and, so far, only — company to sign on to Milk With Dignity. By 2021, there were 41 farms employing 209 nonfamily workers enrolled in the program as a result of Ben & Jerry's participation, according to the Milk With Dignity Standards Council's latest annual report. Workers have called the Standards Council's confidential hotline hundreds of times to report farm problems. The Harvard Business Review recently cited this as a rare example of an employee call line that "really works" and can resolve complaints quickly.

Since 2019, workers have pressured Hannaford, a regional grocery store chain based in Maine that sells milk under its name brand, to join Milk With Dignity. They've marched near Hannaford headquarters and staged multistate organizing tours throughout the Northeast, though the company has never met with the activists.