For most of us, getting a bowl of ice cream from the freezer isn't a human rights issue.
We don't generally think of America's favorite summertime dessert as something that's fueled migrant worker talks for years or become the substance of moral debates in dairy-rich states like Vermont. But according to the nonprofit organization Migrant Justice, which has been lobbying for improved working conditions for Vermont dairy workers since 2014, migrant laborers deserve more protections.
And they just got them, thanks, in part, to Ben & Jerry's.
Earlier this week, the Vermont-based ice cream maker agreed to back an initiative to kick-start improved living and working conditions for migrant dairy workers.
Vermont has more than 1,200 migrant dairy laborers, many of whom are responsible for churning out the products for big-name companies like Cabot Cheese and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. And according to a 2014 report published by Migrant Justice, their common working conditions could easily make them the face of the national workers' rights campaign.
Many if not most are expected to work 60 to 80 hours a week, a schedule that often means they work without a day off.
Their working environment is secluded, and their pay has often been below minimum wage.
Workers "endure extreme isolation, often without a clear sense of where they are," and are often the subject of immigration patrols, since many of the workers are undocumented.
Ben & Jerry's agreement with Migrant Justice is meant to ensure that migrant workers can take part in many of the rights that you and I expect in our jobs: a minimum of eight hours rest between shifts, pay at or above minimum wage and basic housing expectations. According to Migrant Justice's research, 40 percent of migrant dairy workers have never been granted a day off from work. Ever.
“One of the biggest issues was housing conditions, the need for workers to be provided with basic amenities, like electricity, water, and housing that is free from pest infestations,” Enrique Balcazar told the New York Times. About 15 percent of migrant farm workers in Vermont don't have adequate heating in their company-supplied housing and 16 percent live in overcrowded, cramped community-style housing supplied by the employer that doesn't provide an adequate number of beds.
Ben & Jerry's agreement however, won't change these statistics automatically. The company still has to convince its dairy supply chain that upgrading living conditions for workers is to their benefit. To do that, it plans to pay a premium to farms that will meet the conditions spelled out in the Milk with Dignity agreement. What's really notable is part of that premium will go back to the worker in the form of added pay.
Under the agreement, workers are entitled to at least eight hours of rest between shifts. They'll be paid at least the state's minimum wage of $10 an hour and their housing will include clean running water, electricity and proper amenities like a bed to sleep in.
The enforcement will be monitored by workers and tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project, an organization that's been at the forefront of workers' rights in many other industries for years. The center's history pushing for civil and human rights goes back as far as the 1970s and has been partially responsible for improved working conditions for tomato workers, chicken processors and other laborers throughout the U.S.
But it's worth asking: What took so long?
And will worker-enforced changes really work? With so many pressures on the migrant worker community, many of which have already been documented in this effort, will individual workers really want to speak up when their landlord/employer doesn't stick to its side of the bargain or doesn't like being monitored?
Proponents of the Milk with Dignity campaign say yes. It's modeled after a successful FairFood model and builds worker education into the monitoring process. The most successful workers' rights campaigns were ones in which laborers not only participated but had an educated understanding of their rights and protections. It is also backed up by a new Milk with Dignity Standards Council that will have the power to dialogue with both sides and problem-solve challenges.
Of course, it's also worth wondering where the state of Vermont was during this process. Vermont's Agency of Agriculture already spells out the laws governing housing and working conditions online and sets standards for enforcement in Vermont's agricultural sectors.
The truth is, migrant worker rights often get left out of monitoring, in part because many workers are undocumented and although recognized as important in today's economy, remain a vulnerable population. In this day in age, that contentious status becomes an easy exit point for government agencies that can say that they can't protect workers that aren't technically on the state's resident roles.
Which is why Ben & Jerry's backing of basic rights for migrant workers is significant. It challenges farms to address the issue themselves, building an economic argument for supporting human rights. And, like so many previous initiatives, it puts migrant workers' rights on the list of protections that Vermont state agencies and dairy companies know they should have been addressing long ago.
Flickr images: Qfamily
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.