The first time I saw my dad after eight years apart, I couldn’t believe how much he had aged. When he had left our home in Mexico to come to the United States, he was still a young man. After eight years of toiling on a Vermont dairy farm—sending money home so my siblings and I could go to school—his face looked weathered, worn, and tired.
When the money he sent wasn’t enough for me to finish school, I joined him in Vermont. But our reunion was short-lived. An hour after I arrived in his cramped and dilapidated one-room trailer, he excused himself to catch a few hours’ sleep before his second shift started and he had to work through the night. With him working around the clock, seven days a week, there was little time to spend together and make up for our years apart.
My dad taught me how to milk cows. My first time in the barn, I thought I would pass out from the stench. It was scary working among the cows, getting knocked around by huge animals. Because there were no jobs available at the farm where my dad worked, I had to find work at a farm an hour away. At just 17, I was living and working by myself in a small farm on a back road in an unknown country, facing my first Vermont winter. Waking up at 3 a.m. to start my first shift, I’ve never felt so isolated.
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.
I volunteered to help Migrant Justice survey nearly 200 dairy workers in Vermont—more than 10 percent of the estimated 1,500 immigrant farm workers who hold up the state’s famed dairy industry. The survey showed that nearly half of us are working seven days a week, making less than minimum wage.
Though workers average about 70 hours per week, we are excluded from overtime pay and many of us go days without getting eight consecutive hours off. The housing on many farms is substandard, with some workers reporting living with infestations, without drinking water, or without sufficient heat during the long Vermont winters.
The survey showed us that the problems ran throughout the industry. Even on farms like the one my dad worked on, where the farmer tried his best to take care of the workers, the low price of milk prevented employers from having the resources to improve conditions. We realized that to create fair and dignified conditions on Vermont’s dairy farms, we would have to transform the entire industry.
We got inspiration in our work to protect human rights across an industry in part through the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their Fair Food Program (FFP). Through legally binding agreements with 14 major fast food and supermarket corporations—including McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Walmart—the tomato workers of the CIW required companies to buy from tomato growers that follow a farmworker-authored code of conduct and pay a bonus that reaches workers.
The agreements work because every worker in the program is educated on their rights under the code of conduct and an independent monitor investigates complaints, audits farms, and can suspend growers if they don’t live up to their end of the bargain. The CIW calls this approach “worker-driven social responsibility.”
Vermont dairy workers traveled to Florida to see first-hand what the CIW had accomplished in the tomato fields. Workers were picking in 90-degree heat, but because of the program, they now had water breaks and shade tents. I saw CIW organizers talk with workers about their rights and how to enforce them. At the time, we dreamt that one day we would be doing the same on dairy farms in Vermont.
When we came home, we got to work adapting the FFP and the principles of worker-driven social responsibility to the Vermont dairy industry; the result was the Milk with Dignity Program. We decided to approach Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, giving the Vermont company the opportunity to be the first corporation to join the program.
Ben & Jerry’s has built a global brand on social responsibility by buying Fairtrade-certified ingredients and supporting important social movements. The company had taken steps to improve the environment and animal welfare in their supply chain, but they had yet to take effective action to secure the rights for the workers milking their cows.
When we approached Ben & Jerry’s in 2014, they suggested we might be at the wrong table, that we should get Congress to pass immigration reform or talk to the Department of Labor instead. But because we knew Ben & Jerry’s had the power to make our rights a reality in its supply chain, our farmworker assemblies decided to launch a campaign.
With dairy workers leading marches and telling our stories, the world would learn that we don’t yet have milk produced fairly, with dignified conditions. After our brief public campaign, Ben & Jerry’s signed an agreement of cooperation in June 2015, committing to worker-driven social responsibility principles and to implementing the Milk with Dignity program.
Two years have gone by and we farmworkers haven’t seen a single change on the farm. Ben & Jerry’s says they are still committed to Milk with Dignity, but they have yet to sign the contract and implement the program in their supply chain, even though the program is ready to launch. After nearly two years, we are marching again, demanding that Ben & Jerry’s respect the human rights of the workers putting the cream in their ice cream. And we won’t stop until Ben & Jerry’s makes good on its word.
We have held a national day of action in a dozen cities to coincide with the company’s “Free Cone Day,” a two-day picket at a company board meeting (where the board president told us he understood that “actions speak louder than words”), and a march of hundreds to the company’s flagship store on International Workers Day, where we delivered a 150-yard chain of postcards from customers demanding implementation without further delay. On a call-in day, a Ben & Jerry’s employee told one of our supporters that they had never received so many calls before.
Tomorrow, on June 17, almost two years to the day from when Ben & Jerry’s signed their commitment to Milk with Dignity, we will march 13 miles from the Vermont state capitol to the company’s ice cream factory. We hope that we’ll be able to get the company to stand up for the human rights of the workers in their supply chain. We will not give up until the program is in place.
Soon after we announced the 2017 Milk with Dignity campaign, I was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while leaving the Migrant Justice office. I’m just one of many farmworker leaders who has been targeted by the President’s deportation force for speaking out for my rights. But after 11 hard days in immigration jail—and thousands of people marching for my freedom—I was ordered to be released by a judge. I came out more inspired and committed than ever to stand up and fight for what’s right.
Milk with Dignity will bring about a new day for dairy workers. Ben & Jerry’s is just the beginning. Company by company, we the workers—whether parents working to provide for their children, or youth dreaming of a brighter future—will transform this industry and win our human rights.
Update: On Saturday, June 17, a number of international human rights organizations sent a letter to Ben & Jerry’s urging the company to join the Milk with Dignity program.
Also on Saturday, two Migrant Justice marchers were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents after the march.