Food & Drink

Marita Canedo Of Migrant Justice On Milk With Dignity And Supporting Dairy Farmworkers

Dairy farmworkers form a vital but mostly invisible sector of the food system. Migrant Justice is a Vermont-based, farmworker-led organization bringing justice and dignity to these essential workers. Their Milk with Dignity Program was influenced by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) Fair Food Program. These worker-driven social responsibility programs (WSR’s) are designed and led by farmworkers and have been proven by a ten-year longitudinal study to be the most effective framework for protecting human rights in corporate supply chains, more so than fair trade. By leveraging consumer-facing campaign pressure, WSRs create legally binding frameworks and enforcement mechanisms with corporate product buyers that ensure fair pay and prevent forced labor, harassment and sexual violence on farms.

We spoke with Marita Canedo, Milk with Dignity Program Coordinator for Migrant Justice.

ES: What inspired the formation of Migrant Justice?

MC: Migrant Justice was inspired by a tragic death of a dairy farm worker, Jose Obeth Santiz, that was the spark to bring out the light of this community that was sustaining the dairy industry. 

ES: Tell us some more about the conditions that dairy farm workers face in Vermont and elsewhere.

MC: The farms here are different from other states because they are smaller, which creates a lot of isolation, and housing is provided by the farms. So, if you lose your job, you lose your housing situation. People are working 60 to 80 hours per week. Shifts that go from 12 to 15 hours, sometimes without a break, without a day off. A lot of people are not getting minimum wage. And then there is no training, a lack of understanding health and safety issues. Milking is a very dangerous job. The cows don’t milk themselves.

ES: How does being an immigrant complicate things? Especially being near a militarized border?

MC: So, first is the cultural shock, right? A lot of people that come to Vermont, have been working on farms back in their countries. They know the work and have the love for the land, but, they have never faced the winter. And being near the border there are people who never leave the farm because border patrol is always around. Each farm is a world. So we see farmers who really want to support the employees. In other situations where it’s really bad, some threaten that, “If you don’t do what I say” or “if you don’t comply with our rules, I’m going to call ICE on you”. Everybody knows that the migrant is sustaining this industry, so it’s just a dynamic of power just keeping them scared and hidden.

ES: So what are the goals and mission of Migrant Justice? 

MC: Migrant Justice is a grassroots organization. It was founded- it’s led- by the immigrant farm worker community. We build the voice, the capacity, and the power of the community. We engage with allies who accomplish these goals for human rights. Migrant Justice created a program and Ben and Jerry’s, joined as the first company to sign on. We created a program which is a solution to the lack of response from institutions and the government for our community. What we created is the Milk with Dignity Program that brings economic justice to the farms because we know that the prices of milk are the same prices in the seventies.

We know that the farmers are struggling so we cannot ask farmers to invest more for the well-being of workers. We know that enforcement mechanisms need to be in place to comply with the standards and rights for the workers. Milk with Dignity was created after learning about the Fair Food Program that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) started with the tomato industry. We learned from them. And then we adapted that to the milk. Milkers need better shifts or they need floors to not be slippery when they are milking the cows and tomato pickers need shade in the fields. This model is adaptable to any industry. It’s led by the workers and has enforceable standards. The workers created the standards, they are the experts of the farm. Ben and Jerry’s pays a premium to the farms and then this money goes- complying with the code of conduct- to the pockets of the farm workers. Not only by increasing wages but by a bonus that comes in their checks. So, it’s really like a redistribution of the money. 

ES: It really transforms a farm worker into a rights holder. An equal participant in the enterprise who is protected by legally binding agreements. Like an investor.

MC: Right. Now we are asking for supermarkets to join the Milk with Dignity program. Hannaford is owned by Ahold Delhaize which is a company from the Netherlands that has some supermarkets under the Fair Food Program. So they already know about the model. They have claimed in the past that they are going to be really strict on their sourcing and their human rights. We figured out that the Hannaford brand milk comes from farms in Vermont. And we sent a letter to the president- he never responded. We made phone calls trying to get a meeting- nothing happened. Then we launched a public campaign. They haven’t responded directly to us, but, they have made comments publicly like, “Oh, they need to create something with standards… and something for workers about wages and human rights”. And we are like, “Hey! We have the solution! Here we are!” But of course, for these companies it takes time to understand that they don’t have the power of decision. They have the power to listen to farm workers and the communities. Because they are profiting from them. Especially now with COVID. 

ES: What do you feel are some of the most compelling achievements of Migrant Justice in addition to these campaign victories? 

MC: So, focusing on these past two years, what we’ve achieved is: we started receiving donations when COVID-19 started and we decided to create a solidarity fund because immigrants were exempt from getting the federal stimulus paycheck. And that pushed a campaign with the governor of Vermont to use the budget and put five million into stimulus COVID-19 pay to the immigrants that were excluded from the federal stimulus paycheck. And other achievements before Milk with Dignity, in Vermont, regardless of your immigration status we can get you a driver’s license. Also, we have fair and impartial Policing Policies, so police cannot act as immigration enforcement. This has been very critical because if you are stopped by the police they cannot ask for your immigration status, they cannot call immigration for any reason. 

ES: What is Migrant Justice’s long term vision for the food system?

MC: So we have hope that our model expands. We know that it’s real. We know that it’s something that brings us to a just transition. Because it puts in place everything that is happening in the food industry and in a way that’s really needed. We hope that Milk with Dignity expands not only in Vermont, but all over the country. We hope that other certification programs that are being created that don’t have workers’ power or  workers’ input don’t try to sell us their things about “being good” when they’re not.

We’ve seen, for example, Fair Trade USA just created their own kind of “Milk Matters” and even the name is insulting. We’ve seen that they don’t have the workers’ input, they are not led by workers. They are doing “community development”. Okay! Create a school! Create a field! Create a library! That doesn’t mean you are addressing human rights in violation of sexual violence or human trafficking by creating these things. And that’s the thing, you know? Companies see these certification programs as easier and cheaper and we are like, “No, actually, go with us. It’s not cheaper, it takes more time, but it’s real and concrete.”

ES: Do you see a future where more of the farm workers have farm ownership or co-operatives or collective farm ownership? Particularly in Vermont?

MC: That’s the dream! We’re exploring those alternatives and something that we’ve started doing is partnering with a construction co-operative that does environmental and sustainable building materials. We’re learning from them- actually some members of our community are already working there as part of the co-op. So it’s something that, yeah, we are exploring/learning, and, hopefully in the future because we also have access to land, we can have something like home ownership.


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