Somewhere at a Ben & Jerry’s yesterday, an eager ice cream enthusiast ordered the popular Americone Dream, a taste bud experience the company jokingly promotes as “it may be illegal to lick the Lincoln Memorial, but with this ice cream, you can do the next best thing and lick liberty.” The duly named Vanilla Ice Cream with Fudge Covered Waffle Cone Pieces and Caramel Swirl may have hit a nerve for dairy workers who also wish to pursue the eponymous American Dream.
Almost a million people lined up at Ben and Jerry’s Scoop shops around the world for their 38th Free Cone day. That’s one million (because let’s be honest, how many college kids get back in line for seconds) scoops of ice cream.
But as lines grew around blocks, and people posted selfies to #FreeConeDay, activists in a handful of U.S. cities were protesting the company with human and labor right demands. A campaign dubbed the “Milk with Dignity Campaign,” is run by dairy workers and activists organizing with immigrant rights group Migrant Justice in Burlington, VT.
They allege that some dairy farms in Ben & Jerry’s milk supply chain are paying wages below the VT minimum wage of $10.00 per hour, along with 20 percent of Vermont dairy workers having 20 percent of their pay illegally withheld.
Kike Balcazar, 24, is an immigrant who worked on Vermont dairy farms for three years. His parents have also been dairy workers for more than ten years. He spoke at the Waterbury and Burlington protests on Free Cone Day, and said, “It would be best if no one has to work in the conditions we have worked in. I worked from three in the morning until noon and again in the evening. Often we didn’t have even eight consecutive hours to sleep.” Balcazar is currently an organizer with Migrant Justice, and was recently released from temporary detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being picked up with other organizers for what the organization claims is a target by immigration authorities on political and social activism.
Dairy Farm Worker Enrique Balcazar. Photo by Will Lambek
A 2014 survey of 200 Vermont dairy workers revealed the average worker works 60-80 hours a week, 28 percent routinely work seven hours or more without a break to eat, 40 percent have no time off, and in a state where winters are long and arduous, 15 percent live in overcrowded housing with inadequate heat. According to Migrant Justice, there are between 1,200 to 1,500 immigrant dairy workers in the state, comprising the majority of the labor force.
In June of 2015, Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim signed a written commitment to work with Migrant justice to join the Milk with Dignity program, much to the lauding of The New York Times, saying they “acknowledge the challenging conditions for farm workers and family dairy farms in Vermont.” The company and Migrant Justice have since been in discussion to improve the situation for 22 months.
The protests yesterday called for Ben & Jerry’s to make good on the process and sign an agreement to instill a legally-binding, worker-driven social responsibility initiative that would require their supply chain dairy farms to do some of the following:
— Create farmworker defined standards under a Code of Conduct (safe housing, breaks, and paid sick days)
— Educate farmworkers about their rights
— Third-party monitoring that ensurses the program is being enforced
— Create premums to benefit farmworkers and farmers
— Make the agreement legally-binding
Although Migrant Justice and Ben & Jerry’s are bound by a nondisclosure agreement about what is transpiring during negotiations, both commented to Paste.
Laura Peterson, spokeswoman for Ben & Jerry’s said, “We’ve been working with them diligently since then on the details of how to successfully operationalize the program, which still needs finalizing. We strongly support the goals of Milk with Dignity and believe that a worker led program is the best way to protect the rights and dignity of the workers on Vermont’s dairy farms.”
Migrant Justice spokesman Will Lambek agreed with her statement, and described the process as “hashing out the terms of how the program will be operationalized within their supply chain,” acknowledging that it is a complex process and saying “we don’t want to give the impression that it is like turning a light switch and having human rights respected in the dairy industry.”
Activists protesting in San Francisco. Photo by Molly Stuart
Ben & Jerry’s works with farmers in Vermont, Utah, and the Netherlands. The majority of its U.S. milk supply comes from the St. Albans Co-op in Vermont. Although it is currently working on the dairy worker-led contract, Ben & Jerry’s pays an hourly wage of $16.92 to its own workers, including 470 direct employees in Vermont. The company is famously known for its involvement in social justice campaigns, including those involving marriage equality and climate policy.
It has run a “Caring Dairy” program since 2001, a web-based self-assessment tool for farmers to evaluate their farm on economic, social, and environmental criteria. The company states in its annual report that it “revamped” the program in 2016 to increase compensation for participating farmers in its supply chain. The program included 79 U.S. farms in 2015, with data from 2015 showing social and human capital scoring low, with impact on local economies doing best.
But activists claim that time is of the essence for labor rights. Lambek told Paste, “two years of negotiating with nothing to show for it isn’t an acceptable resolution. It’s ready to go. All that’s missing is Ben & Jerry’s signature on the dotted line.”