WATERBURY, Vt. — A farmworker-driven agreement that Ben & Jerry's signed last year to improve pay and working conditions of laborers on farms that provide the ice cream company milk has been successful, with 72 Northeast farms enrolled and 250 farmworkers covered, the company and a farmworker advocacy group said Wednesday.
Ben & Jerry's signed the "Milk with Dignity" agreement last October, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. dairy industry. It's based on the Fair Food Program started for tomato workers in Florida.
Ben & Jerry's pays a premium to farmers who agree to follow certain labor and housing standards, including meeting Vermont's minimum wage and providing workers with one day off a week, five paid sick days and five paid vacation days a year. A third party board monitors farms, takes and addresses complaints from workers and works with farms on improvements.
Ben & Jerry's gets milk from the St. Albans Cooperative in Vermont, where 72 farms are enrolled in the Milk with Dignity program, producing milk for the company's ice cream. That milk gets mixed with milk from other cooperative members, the company said.
Many of the farms rely on immigrant labor.
"Milk with Dignity has been the dream of farmworkers in Vermont for many years," Enrique Balcazar, a former farmworker from Tabasco, Mexico, said through an interpreter. He has worked on four different dairy farms in Vermont. "It's a path forward for us to have our voices recognized and to have our rights and dignity recognized," said Balcazar who is a leader in the group Migrant Justice.
A Ben & Jerry's spokeswoman said respect for human rights is one of its core values. "And so it behooved us to join this program as our vision for the future for dairy in Vermont is that all of our dairy comes from farms which support thriving livelihoods for farmworkers and farmers," said Cheryl Pinto, the company's manager of values-led sourcing.
A support line for workers started in February has received 48 inquiries to date. Of those, 30 were code-related complaints that were reported. They were investigated and resolutions were reached in 24 cases, the company said.
Neither Ben & Jerry's nor Migrant Justice would provide names of farms enrolled. The St. Albans Cooperative Creamery did not immediately respond to questions seeking comment.