New England

Famous Ice Cream Brand to Encourage Human Rights Improvements

A new agreement between one of New England’s most famous consumer brands and advocates for migrant farmworkers aims to improve working conditions and human rights for farm laborers—regardless of their citizenship status.

Chanting, “Yes, it’s possible” in Spanish, migrant farmworkers and their supporters cheered a new agreement with Ben & Jerry’s signed Tuesday afternoon on Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street Marketplace.

The deal, said to be the first of its type in the nation’s dairy industry, is a worker-driven program called Milk With Dignity.

“This is a watershed moment—a historic moment,” Thelma Gomez, a leader of the nonprofit advocacy group Migrant Justice, said through an interpreter. “A wonderful day–and I’m so proud of my community, for having achieved this and for coming together to create this tremendous step forward.”

Migrant Justice has been pushing for the program for several years, even hosting protests which NECN covered earlier this year. Ben & Jerry’s said from the beginning, it was aligned with Migrant Justice on the concepts of the program, but how to execute the goals remained tricky.

While many specifics were kept confidential, under Milk With Dignity, the ice cream giant will call on its northeast milk suppliers to collaborate with farm workers on improving conditions– like better housing, wages, and safety initiatives. They will also launch a conflict resolution council.

Many Vermont dairy producers rely on migrant farmhands who came to this country without U.S. government permission, often from Mexico. Some of those workers have complained farms can be exploitative, demanding extremely long work weeks and not always offering paid sick days or access to safety training.

But following the new Milk With Dignity pledge, Ben & Jerry’s will send farms incentive payments when they promise to improve labor standards and treatment of employees, regardless of citizenship.

“No, the price of ice cream is not going to go up,” said Jostein Solheim, the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. “This is a cost we have to absorb in our system. That is part of doing business with a values-led business model.”

Solheim predicted that eventually, the concept will spread to other aspects of the country’s food system, which most agree couldn’t function the way it does today without undocumented workers.

“We really believe this is going to travel,” the executive told necn. “This is going to travel across the nation.”

“This is just the first step,” said Migrant Justice community leader Enrique Balcazar, through an interpreter. “We’re here celebrating today together, and we are committing ourselves to keep pushing forward.”

Migrant Justice said it hopes to take the concept to other food producers and encourage its expansion elsewhere.

Solheim said it may take a few years, but eventually, he wants to get to 100 percent participation from dairy farmers in the Ben & Jerry’s supply chain here in the northeast.

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