Activists Turn Up the Heat on Ice Cream Maker, Asking for Human Rights Guarantees

There is renewed pressure on the world-famous ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's to stand up for human rights of undocumented farmworkers who activists say are a significant part of the company's supply chain.

A series of demonstrations came on the brand’s biggest celebration of the year, Free Cone Day, including one outside the flagship scoop shop in the company’s hometown of Burlington, Vermont, and another at its factory and visitors' center in Waterbury.

"We want the company and consumers to know that human rights can't wait," Enrique Balcazar, one of the leaders of the "Milk with Dignity" campaign from the activist group Migrant Justice, said through an interpreter.

In its demonstrations Tuesday, Migrant Justice and allies called on the company to implement its Milk with Dignity initiative, asking for high standards for working conditions on all the dairy farms that supply the critical ingredient for Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

The activists claim low wages, long hours, and little time off in an injury-prone field are the norm for the 1,200-1,500 undocumented migrant laborers they believe to be on Vermont dairy farms. Many of the workers on the farms without U.S. government permission are from Mexico.

Farmworkers are actually exempt from the Vermont's state minimum wage and overtime rules, but may still qualify for the lower federal minimum wage, assuming the farm meets a threshold for the number of employees and hours worked during recent calendar quarters.

Despite certain exemptions for agricultural labor, Migrant Justice said Ben & Jerry's could still lead the way in pushing for fair housing, economic justice, and education about workers’ rights, while helping create visibility around the issue.

The brand told necn it does support the spirit of the movement, but still has some tricky details to hammer out on exactly how it could put the Milk With Dignity program in place. The company said it could not discuss the specific areas it is still working on, because of confidentiality rules.

"We all want a safe, fair, just environment for farmworkers," said Laura Peterson of Ben & Jerry's. "Migrant workers are indispensible to our food system across the country—in dairy and in agriculture everywhere."

Ben & Jerry's noted that it does not own or operate dairy farms, saying it buys most of its cream through the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery. The co-op, according to its website, has 360 member farms and markets more than 3-million pounds of milk a day to customers across the Northeast.

Ben & Jerry's is, itself, an activist company, which has pushed for climate change awareness and other liberal causes over the years.

Because of that reputation, the brand said it appreciates the work by Migrant Justice and has found the ongoing negotiations respectful and positive.

Migrant Justice said it appreciates that cordial tone, but what it really wants is an agreement on its human rights initiative.

As for the Free Cone Day crowds, they were enthusiastic on the Church Street Marketplace, with music to entertain them while they waited in line for their treat.

University of Vermont freshman Chris Watts said he went through the line several times, at both the scoop shop on campus and at the one in downtown Burlington. He chose scoops of his favorite, "The Tonight Dough," he said.

"The price is right," Watts said, smiling. "Free, of course!"

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