Campaign aims to improve conditions for dairy farmworkers
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – The Presbyterian Hunger Program has a long history of advocating for farmworkers that supply vegetables for restaurants and grocery chains. Now the ministry is hoping to see success for dairy farmworkers.
The Milk with Dignity Campaign was launched in 2014 by farmworkers seeking to improve their working conditions and livelihoods.
“These workers face a lot of the same problems faced by Florida farmworkers: 60 to 80-hour work weeks, harassment, wage theft,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, national associate for the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP). “They often work seven days a week, earn less than minimum wage, and deal with a lack of sleep as well as overcrowded housing.”
Like the Fair Food Program, the idea behind Milk with Dignity is to get the retail companies to take responsibility for farmworkers at the base of their supply chain and to improve conditions. Migrant Justice, an immigrant rights organization, has been spearheading the movement with the dairy workers. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been providing assistance to the farmworkers and Migrant Justice, which established a Code of Conduct—with standards for working conditions, including health, safety, housing and other issues—based on CIW’s Fair Food Program model.
Currently, the campaign focuses on dairy farms in the northeast, particularly in Vermont, where Ben & Jerry’s purchases about 90 percent of the cream that goes into its ice cream produced in the United States. About one in 10 Vermont dairy farms—which together employ over 1,500 farmworkers—sell to Ben & Jerry’s.
“The bigger context is the state of farming in America. You have forces of globalization that are pushing farmers to produce as much as they can for export while at the same time the domestic market receives imported products from all over the world,” Kang Bartlett said. “Because of endless competition, farmworkers and farmers are squeezed by this system.”
“The only way many dairy farmers can make it in America now is by capitalizing their operations to increase their yield and their herd in order to boost sales,” he said. “However, this is risky for farmers. Understanding this reality, the Milk with Dignity program urges large corporations to provide economic relief to struggling farmers by paying a premium to farms participating in the program.”
Two years ago, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to the general program, but has not begun implementation with the farmworkers. In June, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Stated Clerk the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II sent a letter to the company’s CEO saying, “…you have the ability to dramatically improve the human rights of Vermont farmworkers and ensure the sustainability of Vermont dairy farmers by joining this program.”
Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, is optimistic for a positive outcome.
“This is a perfect example where the PC(USA) brings its influence to bear in the corporate boardroom, to encourage corporations to do the right thing and to honor their stated commitments to enhance the quality of life for all,” he said.
Kang Bartlett says Presbyterians are encouraged to be mindful where they purchase their food, to support local farmers, and to advocate for rights for farmworkers with letters and phone calls to pressure companies that can make a positive difference in the industry.
“From Presbyterian involvement in supporting tomato pickers in Florida to dairy farmers in Vermont, we are seeing this increased pressure on farmers and farmworkers in every aspect of agriculture from the fishing industry to vegetables and dairy,” he said. “Fish, farm and food retail companies have merged and consolidated and the drive for profits has led to exploited land and labor, including farmers, shippers and food processors.
“We know through the success of the Fair Food Program, that there are sustainable and just solutions that work for companies, producers, farmers, and farmworkers. As Christians with a long tradition of support for labor rights, we must be consistent in siding with workers struggling for respect and dignity.”
The Presbyterian Hunger Program is made possible by gifts to the One Great Hour of Sharing.
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