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The Milk of Human Cruelty

Migrant Justice calls on Hannaford to end exploitation of dairy workers

by | Mar 3, 2020

photo/courtesy Migrant Justice

His name was José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a Tojolabal Mayan from the village of San Isidro, in Chiapas, the southernmost Mexican state. Like scores of other young people from his impoverished farming community, Obeth made the arduous journey from the edge of a rainforest to the frozen fields of Vermont to work on a dairy farm — “to struggle for his own livelihood,” his mother, Zoyla Santiz Cruz, later told a documentarian.

In 2009, three days before Christmas, at an industrial milking operation in Fairfield, Vt., Obeth was snagged by a piece of equipment called a “gutter scraper” and murdered by the machine. As described by Gustavo Teran — the filmmaker who, with Sam Mayfield and Brendan O’Neill, made the 2014 documentary short “Silenced Voices” — Obeth “was pulled in and strangled to death with his own clothes.” He was 20 years old.

Obeth’s death inspired the formation of the Vermont Migrant Farmworkers Solidarity Project, which has since become Migrant Justice, a human rights organization led, early on, by his family members and fellow villagers. Although they use the term “migrant” in reference to these workers’ journey to the U.S., employment in the dairy industry is not seasonal, and many of these immigrants live and labor among the cows for years on end, often under exploitative and inhumane conditions.

Half a decade ago, there were as many as 1,500 “migrant farmworkers” in Vermont, the documentarians reported, and over a third were from Ciapas, which was then at the tail end of two decades of violent conflict between the Zapatistas, who’d led an insurrection in defense of oppressed indigenous people, and government forces and militias. About 80 people from San Isidro, mostly men and boys between the ages of 16 and 25, were working in the Green Mountain State at the time.   

After several years advocating for workers’ rights on a farm-by-farm basis in Vermont, Migrant Justice realized they needed to take a much broader, systemic approach to the problem. They began by documenting it.

In the summer of 2014, the group surveyed 172 fellow laborers on Vermont dairy farms. Forty percent reported earning less than the state’s minimum wage, which was $8.73 at the time. They worked, on average, between 60 and 80 hours per week, and 40 percent said they labored every day of the week. Substantial percentages reported crowded, cold and unsafe conditions at their employer-provided housing, nearly a third said they’d suffered a workplace injury or illness, and more than one in four said they routinely toiled for seven hours or more without a meal break.

“You are so tired because of lack of sleep, you don’t have time to cook,” said Bladimir Cruz Santis, who was 16 when the documentary filmmakers interviewed him. “Only one meal for the entire day and night. At work, your stomach is screaming from hunger.”

Because many, if not most of these immigrants were hired without legitimate work permits, they’re at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and unprotected by labor laws. But the worker-activists of Migrant Justice also realized their bosses are at the mercy of even more powerful economic players and forces. “A corporate-controlled industry places downward pressure on farmers’ incomes, and profits rise for the few when milk prices are low for the many,” the group has observed.

In August of 2014, Migrant Justice sought guidance from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Florida-based group whose national Campaign for Fair Food pressured fast-food chains, meal-service providers and retail giants to agree to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes and to limit those purchases to suppliers that adhere to a human rights–based code of conduct.

Perhaps the most salient lesson the Vermont group learned from the Florida farmworkers was where to apply pressure — not on the farm owners and wholesalers who have no public face, but on the stores and restaurants that are household names, like McDonald’s, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Walmart, all of whom have since signed on to the CIW’s Fair Food Program.

The low-hanging fruit, so to speak, are corporations that make ethical practices part of their brand identity. So, in December 2014, when Migrant Justice launched its Milk with Dignity campaign, the first company they approached was the icon in their backyard: Ben & Jerry’s.

Founded in Burlington in 1978, Ben & Jerry’s sold out to the British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever 20 years ago, but is still headquartered in Vermont and still trying to project an image of rural-hippie wholesomeness. “Ben & Jerry’s was a natural first campaign for us,” said Will Lambek, an organizer with Migrant Justice, “but it wasn’t as straightforward as many people might assume. It took a long time to get them to the table, and it was three years before they signed the agreement.”

In 2017, Ben & Jerry’s began sourcing all the milk used for its northeastern production from Milk with Dignity dairies in Vermont and New York — nearly 70 farms with over 250 workers in total. The code of conduct, drafted by farmworkers, that those dairies are required to follow includes “periodic raises, adequate breaks, time off, paid sick days, humane and safe staffing and working conditions, and fair housing.” An independent body called the Milk with Dignity Standards Council monitors participating dairy operations for compliance and maintains a hotline workers can use to report violations. Meanwhile, Migrant Justice educates those workers about their rights and the program’s benefits.   

Under the terms of the program, Ben & Jerry’s pays a premium for this milk that goes directly to farm owners and workers. Milk with Dignity has already generated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward this end, money that supports higher wages as well as the purchase of safety gear — like masks for workers exposed to manure dust, or the type of protective equipment that should have been installed on the gutter scraper that killed Obeth.

“But, beyond the dollars and cents, it’s about power,” said Lambek. “After living in fear, and suffering, and being afraid to stand up, workers see the balance of power shift in their direction.”  

“Before, we never spoke up,” a dairy worker named Luisa said in a Migrant Justice testimonial. “Now we have the freedom to speak, without any fear that we’ll be fired.”

“We didn’t have a day off before, but now we get a day off — and vacations, too. I can spend more time with my baby,” Luisa added. “Before, nobody cared if we got sick. We had to work and if we couldn’t, that day was taken out of our paycheck. Now that we have Milk with Dignity, we’re paid that day.”

“More than anything else, the changes I’ve seen have been in my housing,” a worker named Jose Luis Cordova Herrera said in another testimonial. “The old trailer was small, and we lived stacked on top of each other. There wasn’t any space to put things, so we had to store stuff on the floor. The fridge wasn’t big enough for all our food. But now that we’re in our new house, everyone has their own room.”

“I think that Milk with Dignity should expand to more farms,” Herrera added, “because there are so many farmworkers who are still living in bad conditions.”

That’s exactly what Migrant Justice aims to do. Last fall, the group launched the second phase of its Milk with Dignity campaign. The target this time: the Maine-born and -based supermarket titan Hannaford.

photo/Terry Allen

Got Socialism?

Why go after Hannaford?

“The high degree of consolidation in the food industry today means multi-billion-dollar brands on the retail end of the industry are able to leverage their volume purchasing power as never before, driving down prices on the farm,” Migrant Justice has written. “This has resulted in downward pressure on farmworkers’ wages and working conditions as farmers seek to preserve ever-shrinking margins.”

Hannaford certainly fits that description. The company, which has 181 locations in New England and New York, is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a Dutch transnational megacorporation that also owns the Stop & Shop, Giant, and Food Lion supermarket chains in the U.S. Ahold Delhaize’s American operations rang up nearly $45 billion in sales last year, according to Supermarket News. The parent corporation is so awash in spare cash that it’s been buying back its own shares at a rate of one billion euros every year since 2017 — with the exception of 2018, when it spent two billion euros’ worth of our grocery money to further enrich itself.  

Ahold Delhaize continues to grow by gobbling up competitors. Last year, it announced plans to acquire the Long Island-based King Kullen supermarket chain, adding over 35 locations, including five Wild by Nature natural-food stores, to its increasingly monopolistic empire.  

Hannaford’s store-brand milk is processed and packaged by H.P. Hood, which has numerous production plants in our region, including facilities in Barre, Vt., and Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood (about a block from Hadlock Field). “These plants source from farms where workers are suffering severe human rights abuses, working in dangerous conditions for below minimum wage,” Migrant Justice claims.

In early November, Migrant Justice held “coordinated actions” at 22 Hannafords, including the store in Machias, during which hundreds of farmworkers and allies rallied in parking lots and hand-delivered letters about the Milk with Dignity campaign to store managers. By mid-February, nearly 1,500 people had also sent letters to Hannaford’s corporate leadership through Migrant Justice’s partnership with The Action Network, an online platform for progressive causes. 

Eric Blom, Hannaford’s Director of External Communications and Community Relations, declined to comment on the allegations of severe human rights abuses or the Milk with Dignity campaign. A Vermont Public Radio report on protests held last October states that Hannaford “did not say whether it would endorse Milk with Dignity or negotiate with Migrant Justice. In a statement, the company said it expects its suppliers to follow the law and treat their workers humanely.”

Blom said he would provide a copy of that statement to Mainer in response to our questions. He failed to do so. “We never saw the statement directly,” Lambek, the Migrant Justice organizer, told Mainer. “Since the launch we have called them and they have responded over the phone that they’re aware of the invitation [to join the campaign] and are looking into it. But we don’t have that in writing.”

Ahold Delhaize is not immune to this type of activism. Its Stop & Shop and Giant brands joined the CIW’s Fair Food Program in 2015. But it took a while to pry that penny per pound from Ahold’s cold Dutch hands. The Immokalee Workers launched their campaign in 2001, and Yum Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut) signed on in 2005. Even Walmart beat Ahold Delhaize by a year.

How much Hannaford-brand milk sold in our state is the product of misery and exploitation? It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but definitely a significant amount, and by any measure, way too much. Migrant Justice hasn’t formally surveyed dairy workers here, but Lambek said, “given what we know about the nature of the industry, there’s no reason to believe the situation will look any different in Maine.”

photo/Vera Chang

It appears there have been no formal studies done on immigrant labor in Maine’s dairy industry. A study conducted in late 2014 by the National Milk Producers Federation, which included Maine, estimated that over half of America’s dairy workforce is immigrant labor, and that nearly 80 percent of our domestic milk supply comes from dairies that employ immigrants.

Reliable employment statistics for Maine dairies are also hard to come by. The Maine Dairy Industry Association (MDIA) claims Maine dairy farms provide over 1,300 jobs, not including processors and other local agricultural partners. But the Maine Department of Labor (DOL) pegs that figure closer to 500 workers. 

Data on wages are similarly murky, but according to industry insiders, it goes something like this: if you’re on the books, you get minimum wage; if you get paid under the table, it’s less; and if you’re a family member, you’re often paid nothing.

Maine dairy farms are relying on immigrant labor in increasing numbers, according to Julie-Marie Bickford, Executive Director of the MDIA, because farm owners can’t attract locals willing to do this type of work, especially for such low pay. “It’s hard to find people who want to work with animals, and it’s even harder to find people who want to work these kinds of hours,” Bickford said.

Maine farmers would pay workers more if they could, but “in the current system, farmers are price-takers, not price-setters,” said Bickford.

One wonders how many conservatives griping about “socialized medicine” eat their Wheaties every morning with socialized milk — because that’s what we’ve got.  Exposed to the merciless forces of the globalized “free market,” America’s milk industry would dry up like spilled you-know-what. It’s only through strong and ongoing government intervention (like the federal Dairy Price Support Program) that the industry exists at all.

Consider this statistic: In 1954, Maine had 4,578 dairy farms; today, there are 213.

The cost of producing milk in Maine has steadily risen since the 1970s, while milk prices have simultaneously fallen (relative to inflation). For the past five years, it’s cost Maine farmers more to produce milk than they can make from its sale. Maine’s Dairy Relief Program makes direct payments to farmers when the price of milk drops below the cost of production. It’s intended to be a safety net, but Bickford said the state support barely keeps farmers’ faces off the floor. “There’s little or no financial stability in this business,” she said. “At this point, the returns are so low that dairy farming in Maine is a labor of love.”

photo/Vera Chang

It’s also back-breaking, nauseating and treacherous. Agricultural work consistently ranks among the most dangerous jobs in America, and dairies are a big reason why. In 2018, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 6.3 injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time dairy workers, a rate higher than logging (3.5) or commercial fishing (2.5). And those figures may significantly under-represent the real risk, because farms with fewer than 11 employees are not included in the BLS numbers, and immigrants, for whom speaking up can be riskier than the work itself, tend not to report their injuries or sickness if they don’t have to.

From 2012 through 2018, Maine dairy workers collectively suffered an average of 10 disabling injuries per year, according to Maine DOL statistics. Incidents involving animals, falls, and workers struck by machinery were the most common types of disabling accidents.

“Everything is slippery, and you have [skid steer] loaders operating on these slippery surfaces,” said Jackie Martinez-Perkins, a dairy and livestock specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). “And there’s always the risk of being mounted by a two-thousand-pound animal,” she added, “because someone’s always in heat.”

Last July, in Turner, the 19-year-old son of a dairy farmer was killed when the skid loader he was operating to clean out the cattle barn tipped, dumping him into a manure pit. The young man was pulled out, but later died in the hospital.

Liquid manure pits, also called “lagoons,” emit gasses so toxic that you’ll asphyxiate before you drown in one. Suffocating shit pits are just another perk that makes dairy work the job of choice for those who have no real choice of employment, like dirt-poor immigrants and the offspring of cash-strapped farmers.

As Migrant Justice observes, consolidation at the retail level has done much to push milk prices through the floor, pressuring farmers to skimp on safety, hire undocumented workers, pay them substandard wages, and compel them to work the equivalent of two full-time jobs every day of the week. In New England, Hannaford is one of the relatively few retail giants in a position to dictate low milk prices. As recently as 2017, milk was among the top five highest-selling items in Hannaford stores.

Corporate consolidation at the level between farmers and retailers has also put the screws to workers. The Big Three milk processors in our region — Hood, Dean Foods, and Dairy Farmers of America (the milk-marketing cooperative that bought Portland’s Oakhurst Dairy six years ago) — may soon be the Big Two. Dean Foods declared bankruptcy last November and announced plans to sell itself to Dairy Farmers of America, which processes milk from over 8,500 farms nationwide. Some Maine dairy farmers fear that if any Dean Foods milk-processing plants in Massachusetts are closed as a consequence of the sale, that milk will flood the market up here and push prices even lower.

Maine’s “milkshed,” as the supply system is called, is fed by a mix of small-scale family farms and larger industrial operations. Both types employ immigrants, though the latter employ more.

So, again, it’s hard to say how much of your glass of Hannaford-brand moo juice is the product of immiserated immigrant labor. The Maine dairy farmers who’ve hired immigrants “are very happy with the results,” said Bickford, who characterized the relationship as an interdependence, albeit between two parties in dire circumstances.

photo/Vera Chang

“The immigrant workers that are here don’t have the cleanest paperwork,” said MOFGA’s Martinez-Perkins. “But it’s the ones that cause trouble who get caught and deported.”

Of course, that’s (pardon the pun) bullshit, and it gets less true every day Donald Trump is in office. But even during the Obama years, migrant dairy workers could get arrested just for shopping for food, or taking a breath of fresh air.

Mari, a migrant dairy farmworker interviewed in the 2014 “Silenced Voices” doc, lived in northern Vermont, near the Canadian border. “[H]ere we can’t go out in front,” she said. “[I]f we go out and all of a sudden border patrol sees us, they can grab us. Tuesdays they pass by in helicopters, and that’s why we are afraid to go out. The boss has told us that if we want to go out and breathe some fresh air, we need to do it behind the farm house.”

Maribel Lopes Ruis told the filmmakers she and her baby were nabbed by border patrol agents at a Walmart in Vermont. Her husband had already been deported, and she had to leave the dairy farm to buy milk.

Though the Milk with Dignity program can’t protect workers when they’re off the farm, it has protected them from potentially negligent or abusive farmers. “There are some people who are scared to talk with the farmers or to ask them for things that they need. They’re afraid that they’ll be fired,” said a young man named Meregildo interviewed for a Migrant Justice video. “But under the program, work is better, we are more at ease and more confident talking to the bosses. We can trust them more because we know our rights. And they can’t humiliate us or say offensive things to us. There are plenty of farms where that happens, but not in the program, not anymore.”

The immigrant workforce in Maine’s dairy industry is practically invisible and very difficult to reach. The bigger milking operations (those most likely to employ immigrants) don’t have much of a public presence — no farm shops, no websites, no visitors. None of my contacts in the local immigrant community or Maine’s dairy industry felt comfortable putting me in touch with a worker who’d migrated here, and I was warned not to show up at a farm unannounced and expect a warm welcome.

Jorge Acero is the Maine Monitor Advocate for the state’s Bureau of Employment Services, which is part of the DOL. His official responsibilities include conducting “field checks” at farms, providing “information and advocacy for migrant and seasonal farmworkers on issues such as wages, housing and discrimination,” and “inform[ing] farmworkers of their rights and the services available to them.” Acero told Mainer he never sees migrant dairy workers when he’s out doing his job. He also said he rarely hears about issues involving immigrant dairy workers from organizations that provide services to them. 

Migrant Justice is guided and led by the workers themselves, but as with the Immokalee Workers’ campaign, Milk with Justice ultimately relies on consumers to leverage the economic and social pressure necessary to force huge corporations to ethically source their products. The Vermont group plans to ramp up its educational and activist activities in Maine in the coming months.

Hannaford’s Achilles heel, the thing it’s most determined to protect, is its brand (symbolized by its bread-and-produce “cornucopia” logo). In 2017, Hannaford President and CEO Mike Vail was the featured guest for one of the Portland Press Herald’s “Like a Boss” business events (now available as a podcast). “The biggest responsibility I feel like I have is to protect the brand,” said Vail (who did not respond to Mainer’s request for comment).

“Our brand is everything,” Vail said at the event. “Our Hannaford cornucopia, what it stands for, how we deliver against that on the product side, on the value side, and the service side, and our store conditions, is critically important. That keeps me up at night.”

Vail isn’t the only one losing sleep over Hannaford’s signature products. Maybe someday he’ll wake up to what’s really going on at the dairy farms that produce Hannaford milk.

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