In December of 2009, a young farmworker named José Obeth Santiz Cruz was killed on the job in Fairfield, Vermont after his clothes got caught in a mechanized gutter scraper. Cruz’s tragic death led to the creation of Migrant Justice, an organization demanding human rights for migrant farmworkers in the state.
years later, Migrant Justice approached Ben & Jerry’s, the
popular Vermont-based ice cream company, and invited them to join
with Dignity’ program, a movement of farmworkers and activists
that calls on companies to put an end to rampant industry abuses.
Despite Ben & Jerry’s progressive reputation and stated
commitment to social causes, the company has so far declined to
formally sign on to a grassroots initiative led by some of the most
exploited workers in the state.
Vermont farmworkers are escalating their campaign, building from
years of organizing in an industry fraught with abuses. The Milk with
Dignity campaign was birthed after years of movement dialogue and
research, including the release of a survey showing
that 40 percent of Vermont farmworkers earn less than minimum wage.
farmworkers worked directly with the Florida-based Coalition of
Immokalee Workers (CIW) to construct a campaign capable of taking on
large companies, including businesses that have cultivated a
progressive image. The CIW spearheaded an internationally
campaign, which has liberated more than 1,200 farmworkers from
bondage in the United States.
2010, the CIW forced the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to adopt
Food Program,’ which covered more than 30,000 workers.
According to a joint press
release from the two organizations, the agreement
“[includes] a strict code of conduct, a cooperative complaint
resolution system, a participatory health and safety program, and a
worker-to-worker education process—to over 90 percent of the
Florida tomato industry.”
strategy has already borne some fruit for Migrant Justice. In May of
2015, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to work with Migrant Justice in
implementing the Milk with Dignity program in their supply chain.
the ice cream giant has yet to officially endorse the agreement.
Migrant Justice’s Will Lambek told In
while both sides are unable to speak publicly about the contract
negotiations, he can confirm that Migrant Justice is talking with Ben
& Jerry’s frequently. Lambek says he is optimistic about the
process, but he pointed out that his organization is prepared to do
“whatever we can, whatever it takes to get Ben & Jerry’s to
support this campaign.”
meant standing outside of Ben & Jerry’s locations on April 4,
during the company’s Free
Cone Day, and passing out information about the campaign. The
following week, activists protested outside
of a Ben & Jerry’s board meeting in South Burlington. "To
get those last things resolved, we have this whole organization to go
through, and it's not easy," said Ben & Jerry’s board
director Jeff Furman after listening to dairy workers speak. "But
there's a lot of understanding and concern for the workers’
recently, on the two-year anniversary of Ben & Jerry’s
unfulfilled commitment to Milk with Dignity, Migrant Justice
organized a 13-mile march from Vermont’s State House to Ben &
Jerry’s factory. In addition to being the place where the company’s
famous ice cream is made, Lambek pointed out the city is also a big
tourist attraction in Vermont, making it an ideal location to inform
consumers about the issue.
of the marchers is farmworker Enrique Balcazar. Prior to the action,
he wrote a piece for Civil
Eats describing his
first job in Vermont, after moving to the state from Mexico at the
age of 17:
farmer had me working 12 to 15 hours a day, with no day off. At the
end of my first week, my body aching from over 80 hours of hard
labor, I received my first paycheck and couldn’t believe what I
saw: $350, or just over $4 per hour. At that time, I had no idea what
the minimum wage was, but I knew that it wasn’t fair pay for the
work I had done. But when I tried to express my frustration to the
farm owner, he simply told me that’s how much the job paid.
few months after coming to Vermont, organizers with Migrant Justice
visited my farm and invited me to a community assembly, where I
joined 30 other farmworkers in sharing food and swapping stories
about abusive work conditions just like mine. I was happy to find my
community, but angry to find out that we were all suffering. Then and
there, I decided to get involved in the fight for my rights.
like Balcazar appear to be taking considerable risks to fight this
battle in a political climate marked by escalated immigration
enforcement. Shortly after the Milk with Dignity campaign was
announced, Balcazar was detained by ICE. After 11 days in an
immigration jail he was ordered release by
a judge. “I’m just one of many farmworker leaders who has been
targeted by the President’s deportation force for speaking out for
my rights,” he wrote.
the march on Ben & Jerry’s factory two of the participants,
Yesenia Hernandez-Ramos and Esau Peche-Ventura, were arrestedand
held on immigration charges. They’re currently at a detention
facility in New Hampshire pending a hearing to determine bond. On
June 23, Migrant Justice held a rally calling for their release.
& Jerry’s released a statement about the arrests. "We are
concerned that hard-working, productive members of our community, who
contribute to the success of dairy farms in Vermont, would face
criminalization," the company said. "We need policy change
that serves Vermont's dairy workers, farmers, and industry as a
Justice certainly agrees with that sentiment. Now, the organization
is urging Ben & Jerry’s to put its principles into practice.
>> The article above was written by Michael, Arria, and is reprinted from In These Times.