Milk with Dignity pushes for “leche justa”

By SOPHIA MCDERMOTT-HUGHES

“Hannaford, escucha. Estamos en la lucha. Leche justa, a mi me gusta.” Protesters chanted this  phrase — which loosely translates to “Hannaford, listen, we are fighting for fair trade milk” — as they gathered outside of the Middlebury branch of the Hannaford supermarket. Through their protests on Saturday, Nov. 2, they demanded that the chain only buy its milk from dairy farms that respect the human rights of their workers.

Eighty to 100 farmworkers, organizers, Middlebury community members and Middlebury students attended the protest, which was organized by Middlebury students Olivia Pintair ’22.5 and Hannah Ennis ’22.5 and hosted by student organizations Juntos and Middlebury Refugee Outreach Club (MiddROC). 

The protest was part of the Milk with Dignity Day of Action. Migrant Justice, a solidarity collective aimed at improving the economic and human rights of farmworkers in the northeast, organized the campaign with similar events at 21 Hannaford’s locations in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Eleuterio, a prominent member of the Migrant Justice Coordination Committee and an Addison County dairy worker, and Jose Ignacio, a dairy worker in Shoreham, spoke to those assembled about the alleged human rights violations they have experienced as dairy workers in Addison County.

“I work on a farm in Addison county where . . . there are no raises. Where there are no vacations. Where we work 12, 13, 14 hours a day. Where we take only 30 to 40-minute breaks to eat. This is not just,” Euleterio said.

The Milk with Dignity program started in 2014, and Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s signed the first Milk with Dignity contract in 2017. In June of 2019, Migrant Justice launched a campaign calling on Hannaford, a major dairy buyer with nearly 200 stores throughout the northeast, to join the Milk with Dignity Program. 

Should the supermarket agree to join the program, it would only buy its milk from dairy farms that agree to follow the Milk With Dignity Code of Conduct, which includes “adequate breaks, time off, paid sick leave, humane and safe staffing and working conditions and fair housing.” These farms have to comply with Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC) monitoring to ensure their adherence to the code. They must guarantee that their workers have unfettered access to MDSC complaint mechanisms and worker-to-worker education about their rights. In order to not place undue financial burden on the already-struggling Vermont dairy industry, Hannaford would pay an extra premium to farms to support wage increases. The supermarket would also “sign a legally-binding agreement that defines the program as an enforceable contract under law,” according to the Migrant Justice website.

A 2014 survey of nearly 200 Vermont dairy workers conducted by Migrant Justice showed that 40% of workers receive less than the Vermont minimum wage, 40% have no days off and 20% have their pay illegally withheld. 

Both Euleterio and Ignacio said that workers on their farms share cramped, cockroach- and rat-infested quarters without privacy. Roommates often work different shifts and wake each other up as they leave and return from work.

“You can’t rest. You can’t sleep, which is so difficult in a job where you’re working with large animals every day, and you have to be on your toes,” Ignacio said.

EMMANUEL TAMRAT
Jose Ignacio, a dairy worker in Addison County, addressed the protest attendees.

According to the Migrant Justice survey, 15% of Vermont dairy workers “live in overcrowded housing” and 15% “do not have eight consecutive hours off, per day, to sleep.”

Ignacio said that only the common room and kitchen of his living quarters have heat, so that when workers do have the opportunity to sleep, they must do so in freezing cold rooms during the harsh Vermont winters. 

Migrant Justice’s survey found that the housing of 15% of Vermont dairy workers has inadequate heat.  

“We had to build our own beds. Some farm workers are just sleeping on a pallet that they put there and covered with a mattress,” Ignacio said.

Euleterio said the workers labor under dangerous working conditions without proper protection. “We want protective equipment so that when we are working with dangerous chemicals that we know are bad for our health, we will have sufficient training and protection to keep ourselves safe,” he said.

“We are all here today to invite Hannaford to join the Milk with Dignity program to make these abuses the thing of the past and to bring about a new day for human rights in the dairy industry,” Ignacio said. 

Eleuterio expressed his frustration with existing actions relating to the campaign. “We have sent letters. We have emailed. We have called the CEO of Hannaford, but without response,” he said.

At Saturday’s protest, members handed two assistant managers of the Middlebury Hannaford a letter to the corporate headquarters in Maine inviting the chain to join the program. The Hannaford employees declined to comment on the protest. 

Undeterred by the possibility of continued inaction on the part of Hannaford, Jose Ignacio said, “We are going to remain united, fighting for this program until we get a response.”

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