Vermont Business Magazine Representatives of Ben & Jerry's and farm worker rights organization Migrant Justice joined Wednesday to celebrate profound changes underway in the region's dairy industry. The implementation of the worker-driven human rights program Milk with Dignity in the ice cream company's Northeast supply chain is a story of progress and positive transformation at a time of falling milk prices and rising economic tensions.
Ben & Jerry's entered the Milk with Dignity program last October, becoming the first dairy business to do so. The company pays a premium to its participating farmers, who in turn agree to adhere to labor and housing standards in the program's worker-developed Code of Conduct. Farms commit to come into compliance with Vermont's minimum wage, offer five paid sick days and five paid vacation days a year, provide one day off per week, and meet a variety of housing, health and safety, and other labor standards.
Ben & Jerry's and farm worker rights organization Migrant Justice celebrate Wednesday. Ben & Jerry's was the first dairy business to join the Milk with Dignity program. Courtesy photo.
While many farms have long worked to assure farm workers were treated fairly, the Milk with Dignity program is making a difference. "We've been very pleased that the farmers have been open to the process and are making good progress where progress was needed," said Tom Fritzsche, Executive Director of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, which implements the program. "Overall, I think farmers have seen the program as a positive resource."
Before the press conference, David Diaz, a farm worker in the program, said: "With Milk with Dignity, workers have a voice. We aren't scared to speak up. I never had a day off before the program. But now I have two days off per month and have made a plan with the farmer to move towards a day off every week. I've talked with some workers who are now getting raises, bonuses, and paid vacations—things they didn't have before Milk with Dignity."
Since the signing of the agreement, 72 farms in Ben & Jerry's Northeast supply chain have enrolled in the program, representing 100% of the company's dairy volume needs. Over 300 farm workers and farmers have participated in education sessions where they learned of their rights and responsibilities in the program. Compliance with the Code is achieved through a unique partnership and problem-solving approach between farmers and farm workers, facilitated by the newly created Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC). Workers with questions or concerns are encouraged to call a 24/7 support line run by the MDSC. The MDSC has begun fielding calls, resolving complaints and conducting audits on participating farms.
"Respect for human rights is one of our core values," said Cheryl Pinto, manager of Values-Led Sourcing at Ben & Jerry's. "Our vision for the future is that all dairy used by Ben & Jerry's comes from farms that provide thriving livelihoods for farmers and farm workers. The Milk with Dignity program underscores our belief that it's not just ingredients that make our ice cream so euphoric—it's the people behind those ingredients who work so hard. Our ability to embrace this program and roll it out so quickly is a testimony to the foundation of mutual respect that already existed between our Vermont farmers and farm workers."
At the event, participants spoke of a new level of trust and communication between dairy workers and farmers, brought about through participation in the program. They also spoke to some of the concrete changes already achieved: improvements to worker housing, more protective equipment, pay raises and reformed scheduling, and a day of rest for workers. Farmers and workers anticipate further improvements over time, as farm audits identify improvement areas.
One participating farmer was quoted, saying: "The Milk with Dignity program adds value to our farm at a time when milk prices are at a historic low. Not only do we receive a premium for our milk, but the practices encouraged by the program increase the effectiveness of our workforce and improve communication on the farm. There is a high degree of trust between our team here at the farm and the MDSC, and that is the primary reason why the program is successful in my opinion. The audit process was straightforward and did not take much time out of my schedule. As a result of the audit we have improved employee training on the farm, which helps prevent workplace accidents and improves the quality of our milk."
Though Ben & Jerry's is the first company to join the Milk with Dignity program, representatives of Migrant Justice indicated that they had already begun conversations with other dairy brands interested in the model.
Migrant Justice leader and former dairy worker Enrique Balcazar extolled the progress made by the implementation of Milk with Dignity: "When farm workers signed the Milk with Dignity agreement with Ben & Jerry's last year, we announced 'a new day in dairy, a new day for human rights.' The implementation of the program has brought that dream to pass. Milk with Dignity is good for workers, farmers, corporations and consumers. Any company that wants to ensure human rights in its dairy supply chain must follow in Ben & Jerry's footsteps."
SOURCE: WATERBURY, Vt., July 25, 2018 /PRNewswire/ -- Ben & Jerry's