If Ben & Jerry’s Is Progressive, Why Won’t It Protect Its Farmworkers?

Michael Arria June 30, 2017

A Ben & Jerry's worker hands an ice cream cone to a customer on Free Cone Day in Burlington, Vermont. (Business Wire / Handout)

In Decem­ber of 2009, a young farm­work­er named José Obeth San­tiz Cruz was killed on the job in Fair­field, Ver­mont after his clothes got caught in a mech­a­nized gut­ter scraper. Cruz’s trag­ic death led to the cre­ation of Migrant Jus­tice, an orga­ni­za­tion demand­ing human rights for migrant farm­work­ers in the state.

Five years lat­er, Migrant Jus­tice approached Ben & Jerry’s, the pop­u­lar Ver­mont-based ice cream com­pa­ny, and invit­ed them to join their Milk with Dig­ni­ty’ pro­gram, a move­ment of farm­work­ers and activists that calls on com­pa­nies to put an end to ram­pant indus­try abus­es. Despite Ben & Jerry’s pro­gres­sive rep­u­ta­tion and stat­ed com­mit­ment to social caus­es, the com­pa­ny has so far declined to for­mal­ly sign on to a grass­roots ini­tia­tive led by some of the most exploit­ed work­ers in the state.

Now, Ver­mont farm­work­ers are esca­lat­ing their cam­paign, build­ing from years of orga­niz­ing in an indus­try fraught with abus­es. The Milk with Dig­ni­ty cam­paign was birthed after years of move­ment dia­logue and research, includ­ing the release of a sur­vey show­ing that 40 per­cent of Ver­mont farm­work­ers earn less than min­i­mum wage.

Ver­mont farm­work­ers worked direct­ly with the Flori­da-based Coali­tion of Immokalee Work­ers (CIW) to con­struct a cam­paign capa­ble of tak­ing on large com­pa­nies, includ­ing busi­ness­es that have cul­ti­vat­ed a pro­gres­sive image. The CIW spear­head­ed an inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized anti-slav­ery cam­paign, which has lib­er­at­ed more than 1,200 farm­work­ers from bondage in the Unit­ed States.

In 2010, the CIW forced the Flori­da Toma­to Grow­ers Exchange to adopt farm­work­ers’ Fair Food Pro­gram,’ which cov­ered more than 30,000 work­ers. Accord­ing to a joint press release from the two orga­ni­za­tions, the agree­ment “[includes] a strict code of con­duct, a coop­er­a­tive com­plaint res­o­lu­tion sys­tem, a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry health and safe­ty pro­gram, and a work­er-to-work­er edu­ca­tion process — to over 90 per­cent of the Flori­da toma­to industry.”

CIW’s strat­e­gy has already borne some fruit for Migrant Jus­tice. In May of 2015, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to work with Migrant Jus­tice in imple­ment­ing the Milk with Dig­ni­ty pro­gram in their sup­ply chain.

How­ev­er, the ice cream giant has yet to offi­cial­ly endorse the agree­ment. Migrant Justice’s Will Lam­bek told In These Times that, while both sides are unable to speak pub­licly about the con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, he can con­firm that Migrant Jus­tice is talk­ing with Ben & Jerry’s fre­quent­ly. Lam­bek says he is opti­mistic about the process, but he point­ed out that his orga­ni­za­tion is pre­pared to do what­ev­er we can, what­ev­er it takes to get Ben & Jerry’s to sup­port this campaign.”

That meant stand­ing out­side of Ben & Jerry’s loca­tions on April 4, dur­ing the company’s Free Cone Day, and pass­ing out infor­ma­tion about the cam­paign. The fol­low­ing week, activists protest­ed out­side of a Ben & Jerry’s board meet­ing in South Burling­ton. To get those last things resolved, we have this whole orga­ni­za­tion to go through, and it’s not easy,” said Ben & Jerry’s board direc­tor Jeff Fur­man after lis­ten­ing to dairy work­ers speak. But there’s a lot of under­stand­ing and con­cern for the work­ers’ struggle.”

Most recent­ly, on the two-year anniver­sary of Ben & Jerry’s unful­filled com­mit­ment to Milk with Dig­ni­ty, Migrant Jus­tice orga­nized a 13-mile march from Vermont’s State House to Ben & Jerry’s fac­to­ry. In addi­tion to being the place where the company’s famous ice cream is made, Lam­bek point­ed out the city is also a big tourist attrac­tion in Ver­mont, mak­ing it an ide­al loca­tion to inform con­sumers about the issue.

One of the marchers is farm­work­er Enrique Bal­cazar. Pri­or to the action, he wrote a piece for Civ­il Eats describ­ing his first job in Ver­mont, after mov­ing to the state from Mex­i­co at the age of 17:

The farmer had me work­ing 12 to 15 hours a day, with no day off. At the end of my first week, my body aching from over 80 hours of hard labor, I received my first pay­check and couldn’t believe what I saw: $350, or just over $4 per hour. At that time, I had no idea what the min­i­mum wage was, but I knew that it wasn’t fair pay for the work I had done. But when I tried to express my frus­tra­tion to the farm own­er, he sim­ply told me that’s how much the job paid.

A few months after com­ing to Ver­mont, orga­niz­ers with Migrant Jus­tice vis­it­ed my farm and invit­ed me to a com­mu­ni­ty assem­bly, where I joined 30 oth­er farm­work­ers in shar­ing food and swap­ping sto­ries about abu­sive work con­di­tions just like mine. I was hap­py to find my com­mu­ni­ty, but angry to find out that we were all suf­fer­ing. Then and there, I decid­ed to get involved in the fight for my rights.

Work­ers like Bal­cazar appear to be tak­ing con­sid­er­able risks to fight this bat­tle in a polit­i­cal cli­mate marked by esca­lat­ed immi­gra­tion enforce­ment. Short­ly after the Milk with Dig­ni­ty cam­paign was announced, Bal­cazar was detained by ICE. After 11 days in an immi­gra­tion jail he was ordered release by a judge. I’m just one of many farm­work­er lead­ers who has been tar­get­ed by the President’s depor­ta­tion force for speak­ing out for my rights,” he wrote.

After the march on Ben & Jerry’s fac­to­ry two of the par­tic­i­pants, Yese­nia Her­nan­dez-Ramos and Esau Peche-Ven­tu­ra, were arrest­ed and held on immi­gra­tion charges. They’re cur­rent­ly at a deten­tion facil­i­ty in New Hamp­shire pend­ing a hear­ing to deter­mine bond. On June 23, Migrant Jus­tice held a ral­ly call­ing for their release.

Ben & Jerry’s released a state­ment about the arrests. We are con­cerned that hard-work­ing, pro­duc­tive mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ty, who con­tribute to the suc­cess of dairy farms in Ver­mont, would face crim­i­nal­iza­tion,” the com­pa­ny said. We need pol­i­cy change that serves Ver­mon­t’s dairy work­ers, farm­ers, and indus­try as a whole.”

Migrant Jus­tice cer­tain­ly agrees with that sen­ti­ment. Now, the orga­ni­za­tion is urg­ing Ben & Jerry’s to put its prin­ci­ples into practice.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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