Advocates for Vt. Farmworkers Call on Grocery Store Chain to Do More for Dairy Laborers

Migrant Justice is asking Hannaford to join its Milk with Dignity program

Advocates for migrant farmworkers are calling on a popular New England grocery store chain to take steps to ensure laborers on dairy farms are treated better.

The Vermont group Migrant Justice called on Hannaford Supermarket to join a supply chain purchase program designed to improve the lives of farmworkers.

“It has to happen,” said Marita Canedo of Migrant Justice, describing what she hopes is an expansion of the group’s worker-developed Milk with Dignity program.

Milk with Dignity sets higher standards for worker treatment, and involves an audit process to make sure improvements are made.

Under the program, workers can expect quality of life enhancements such as paid sick and vacation days, improvements to housing, new workplace safety measures, and education on human rights, Migrant Justice said.

Many of the laborers in Vermont’s famous dairy industry are in the country without government permission, mainly from Mexico and Central America.

They may be undocumented, but are widely considered pivotal to the production of many foods that are likely in your fridge right now, including milk, yogurt, and ice cream.

For years, those often-overlooked farmhands have complained their working conditions aren’t as good as they should be: that they work long hours for low pay and without many breaks, often in hazardous conditions, while living in cramped and substandard housing.

“I was scared to speak to the boss, because I was worried I would be fired if I spoke out,” Jose Luis Cordova, a farmworker who spoke at a rally Thursday in Burlington, said through an interpreter.

With a rally, march, and demonstration outside the Hannaford location on North Avenue in Burlington, Migrant Justice and its allies called on the grocery store chain to demand better human rights guarantees from its suppliers by signing onto Milk with Dignity.

Ben & Jerry’s joined the program in 2017. The iconic ice cream maker pays a premium to producers in its supply chain to help cover their new costs.

That supply chain includes Matt Maxwell’s farm in Newport, Vermont.

“We have seen improvements on both the business and employee relations side of the operation,” Maxwell told the crowd at Thursday’s rally, describing his involvement in the Milk with Dignity program.

While Migrant Justice has said it hopes to see the program expand significantly, it will surely be an uphill climb to convince some brands or retailers to pay the premiums required by the program.

The negotiations with Ben & Jerry’s, a brand known for its support of a range of social justice causes, took more than two years to finalize—indicating how complex it can be to establish change in policies throughout a large supply chain.

Members of Migrant Justice delivered a letter to the Hannaford store manager Thursday, asking the chain of stores to join Milk with Dignity. The demonstrators requested that the manager make sure the letter gets to the CEO of Hannaford.

In response to a request from necn about the calls from Migrant Justice, Hannaford issued a written statement.

“Hannaford is a proud purchaser of Vermont products, including milk and dairy items,” spokeswoman Ericka Dodge wrote. “We expect all those who supply goods to our company to abide by the law and ensure that workers are treated humanely and fairly. We are reaching out to Vermont suppliers to reemphasize that expectation.”

Migrant Justice said it would like to see dairy buyers demand changes in their supply chains with a sense of urgency.

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