This Farmworker Collective is Organizing For ‘Milk With Dignity’ And More

Enrique Balcazar remembers the disillusionment he felt the day he arrived in Vermont from Mexico to work on a dairy farm for the primary time. 

He was excited to start a promising new life in America, with alternatives and comforts he might by no means have imagined again dwelling. However this fantasy was shortly shattered by the tough actuality of dairy farming. 

“After I acquired there, I noticed that I used to be going to be residing in an previous trailer all on my own,” he says. “No cellphone service. No web. Simply completely alone and remoted. That was my first shock.” 

When Balcazar started work just a few days later, he didn’t know the way to do the job and didn’t perceive the language. However he instantly started placing in lengthy hours, seven days per week. 

He was excited when pay day got here round and he acquired his first test. “After I opened it, my coronary heart sank. I used to be solely getting paid $3 to $4 an hour,” he says. “For the work I used to be doing and as exhausting as I used to be working, it was a lot lower than I anticipated.”

Balcazar approached the farm supervisor, who informed him, “it’s what it’s,” and if he caught round, he would possibly finally get a elevate. 

Months handed, however the elevate by no means got here. 

Vermont’s dairy trade depends closely on the labor of undocumented migrant farmworkers. (Picture courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Balcazar’s story is typical for undocumented migrant farmworkers in Vermont, who now comprise the overwhelming majority of dairy employees within the state. 

Dairy farms within the area are below immense stress to chop prices on account of trade consolidation and globalization, which permits highly effective agribusinesses to put downward stress on farmers’ incomes. Farmers then rent migrant employees who they’ll pay far under minimal wage. 

The visa program and federal regulation designed to guard seasonal migrant employees, corresponding to agricultural employees in California, for instance, don’t apply to dairy farmworkers in Vermont due to the year-round nature of dairy manufacturing. 

Consequently, the vast majority of these employees face harmful work circumstances and dwell in substandard housing. Regardless of paying taxes, they don’t have the rights of US residents and are below fixed risk of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol.

Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based farmworker-led group, was based in 2010 in response to the dying of José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a 20-year-old migrant employee from Chiapas killed in a tragic office accident, and the rampant exploitation happening on most dairy farms. 

Its signature program is Milk with Dignity, which enlists highly effective firms to pay a premium to assist elevate wages and enhance circumstances on provider farms. Compliance is monitored by an unbiased third-party group.

Will Lambek, an activist with Migrant Justice, says that one of many causes that dairy employees  created this program is due to the state’s failure to deal with labor and housing violations. 

“The construction arrange by the Division of Labor and the Division of Well being have left farmworkers out and haven’t protected their rights,” he says. “So, that’s why dairy employees created their very own mannequin … to make sure dignified therapy for his or her employees.”

Rubinay Montero, a Migrant Justice chief, marches by Middlebury, Vermont in December 2022. (Picture courtesy of Migrant Justice)

When Balcazar was simply seven years previous, his father moved to Vermont to work on a dairy farm. He would ship a refund to Mexico to help his household, however the cash wasn’t sufficient, so in 2011, when Enrique was 17, he adopted his father to the USA.

As a toddler of farmworkers, getting a visa wasn’t an choice, so he determined to threat his life crossing the border. It was a big threat, nevertheless it was his greatest probability to earn sufficient cash to proceed his schooling in Mexico. 

That’s how he turned one of many tens of millions of largely black and brown migrants and refugees escaping unstable governments and financial crises brought about partially by centuries of imperialism, exploitation and deliberate underdevelopment. Many arrive within the U.S. to take jobs that provide low wages and no advantages, that may in any other case stay unfilled and which can be important to the US economic system.

After a few months engaged on that Vermont farm and not using a elevate, Balcazar discovered a brand new place on the farm the place his father labored. It was there that two members of Migrant Justice visited him and invited him to a group meeting. That go to would change all the pieces for Balcazar. 

When he confirmed up on the meeting, he felt a robust sense of group as a result of there was a room filled with farmworkers, identical to him, speaking about the identical injustices that he had skilled. It was the primary time he realized that his expertise wasn’t an remoted incident; the issues his group was dealing with had been systemic. 

“For many years, the migrant group has been criminalized and persecuted by a system that desires our labor however doesn’t care about our lives,” says Balcazar.

At that second, he thought of his mother and father and all the pieces that they had gone by. “It left a mark on me and I had a realization of the challenges and the answer: organizing for our human rights,” he says.

Though Balzcazar was working 60-70 hours per week and not using a day without work, he turned more and more concerned in Migrant Justice. On the time, it was beginning to arrange for freedom of motion, permitting migrant employees entry to driver’s licenses. “That was actually thrilling for me as a result of I noticed that individuals had been working collectively based mostly on these widespread experiences,” says Balacazar. “And so, proper there, I used to be hooked.” 

Enrique Balcazar leads a protest at a Hannaford Grocery store in April 2023. (Picture courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Balcazar has since emerged as one among Migrant Justice’s most seen and vocal leaders. His activism has helped to enhance not solely his personal work and residing circumstances however these of a whole bunch of migrant dairy farm employees in Vermont. 

After two years of advocacy, Migrant Justice was instrumental in passing a regulation permitting migrant employees to get driver’s licenses, which has modified farmworkers’ lives in rural Vermont. 

Balcazer additionally turned part of creating the Milk with Dignity program and the marketing campaign to enlist Ben & Jerry’s, which is predicated in Vermont and is the most important ice cream firm within the US with 2022 gross sales of $910.68 million. 

In 2014, Migrant Justice started pressuring the corporate with protests in entrance of Ben & Jerry’s shops, picketing its board conferences and marches.

In the future, they marched 13 miles to their ice cream manufacturing unit. “Think about working 12 hours on a farm, earlier than spending the entire day strolling below the solar and  going proper again to a different shift. These had been the sacrifices that we made to defend their dignity,” says Balcazar.

It was throughout this time that Balcazar and different group leaders had been detained by ICE. Finally, due to mobilization from the group, Balcazar was freed. 

“That was a extremely troublesome expertise, however having gone by it, I need to say this deepened my dedication much more to proceed combating for justice and human rights for my group,” he says.

Migrant Justice finally received a contract with Ben & Jerry’s in 2017, which covers 100% of Ben & Jerry’s northeast dairy provide chain and 20 % of Vermont’s dairy trade. This has modified the lives of greater than 200 farmworkers. Migrant Justice experiences that, for the reason that settlement, $3.4 million has been invested in employees’ wages and bonuses and dramatically enhancing labor and housing circumstances. The objective is to develop this system to cowl each farm in Vermont and nationwide.

Farmworkers picket in entrance of the company headquarters of Hannaford Grocery store in Scarborough, Maine in February 2023. (Picture courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Now, Migrant Justice is attempting to enlist Hannaford Grocery store to the Milk with Dignity program. Hannaford is headquartered in Maine, with practically 200 retailers throughout New England and New York. It’s one of many largest grocery store chains within the Northeast and a big purchaser of dairy merchandise within the Northeast. 

“Hannaford has had quite a lot of responses over the course of the marketing campaign and has constantly rejected calls to take a seat down with dairy employees of their provide chain,” says Lambek.

Hannaford is a subsidiary of the Dutch agribusiness big Ahold Delhaize, which reported $91.51 billion in gross sales in 2022. Each corporations declare to be dedicated to respecting human rights.

Nonetheless, Migrant Justice alleges that labor and housing rights violations are happening on provider farms for Hannaford supermarkets. Hannaford has mentioned it has investigated these allegations and that none have been substantiated. 

After dealing with stress from the general public, one among Hannaford’s responses has been to arrange its personal hotline, referred to as the “Converse Up” line. Employees in its provide chains can submit a grievance if their rights are being violated. When it made the announcement final yr, employees determined to take the corporate up on it.

“Employees on 10 farms submitted complaints, and, by their expertise, have proven that this firm line is a farce,” says Lambek. “It hasn’t protected any employee’s rights and hasn’t supplied any treatment for employees who’ve been abused.”

Most lately, in June of this yr,  Hannaford launched a press release saying, “Due to the complexity and scope of the problems dealing with migrant farmworkers, we don’t really feel this strategy is scalable. Nor will we really feel that these points might be solved with a patchwork of loosely affiliated applications like Milk with Dignity working independently.”

Analysis helps the effectiveness of Milk with Dignity’s strategy. Milk with Dignity is an instance of a worker-driven social accountability program (WSR) that’s designed and led by farmworkers. It was modeled after the Coalition of Immokalee Employees Truthful Food Program and has been proven by a 10year longitudinal examine to be “the best framework for shielding human rights in company provide chains.” Earlier this yr, Harvard Legislation Faculty revealed a report calling WSR “a brand new, confirmed mannequin for outlining, claiming, and defending employees’ human rights.”

Farmworkers pose outdoors their farm, a participant within the Milk with Dignity Program. Efrain (R) displays: “Earlier than you simply needed to do what they informed you. No holidays, no sick days, no trip, no bonuses, no raises. Earlier than we didn’t have protections. Now we do. We really feel extra dignified.”

Balcazar can attest to how a lot migrant employees’ lives enhance as soon as their employers be part of WSR applications corresponding to Milk with Dignity. When he displays on his arrival in Vermont 12 years in the past, the change has been drastic.

“Now, you’ll be able to drive to the shop with out concern, you’ll be able to take your loved ones out to a park and, in the event you’re engaged on a farm, then, once you’re working, you will have dignified circumstances that you just deserve,” says Balcazar.

Balcazar and his group envision a future the place their Milk with Dignity program expands to cowl each farm. Public consciousness and help might help them obtain this objective.

“The subsequent time that you just drink a glass of milk or eat that pint of ice cream,” he says, “bear in mind: the cows don’t milk themselves.”

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