Farm Labor Groups Make Progress on Wages and Working Conditions

BURLINGTON, Vt. — It was an unlikely place for a labor protest: 120 migrant workers, students and clergy members were shouting outside the flagship store of Ben & Jerry’s, which displayed a “Peace, Love and Ice Cream” sign on its facade.

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They were demanding that Ben & Jerry’s — which prides itself on its progressive reputation — require the Vermont dairy farms that supply its milk and cream to follow a code of conduct that would guarantee their migrant workers a weekly day off, seven vacation days a year and more, including improved housing.

“The majority of us farmworkers, we don’t even have a day off,” Arnulfo Ramirez, a dairy worker from Guatemala, told the crowd last month. “We’re looking for Ben & Jerry’s to help make sure we’re treated with basic respect.”

With many farmworkers frustrated by low pay and substandard housing — and as more consumers are insisting on food that is produced ethically — innovative movements are sprouting across the country to improve wages and working conditions for America’s more than two million farmworkers.

And for all the obstacles they face — including the decline of the United Farm Workers union founded by Cesar Chavez, and the fact that large numbers of farmworkers are living in the United States without legal authorization — these movements are starting to have some success.

Migrant Justice, the group behind the Ben & Jerry’s protest, began organizing Vermont’s 1,500 migrant dairy workers in 2009 after one worker was dragged into dairy machinery and strangled by his own clothing. The group is counting on Ben & Jerry’s support to help persuade other ice cream, yogurt and milk companies to adopt its “Milk With Dignity” goals.

“We feel that Ben & Jerry’s is the right place to start,” said Brendan O’Neill, an organizer with Migrant Justice. “They have fair-trade coffee. They have cage-free eggs. We think they can do more for dairy workers, too.”

In North Carolina, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee is pressing R.J. Reynolds and its tobacco growers to reach a three-way agreement to speed unionization.

In California, Oxfam America, working with Costco and the United Farm Workers, started the Equitable Food Initiative to address consumer concerns that produce be safe and grown under nonexploitative conditions.

And in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has persuaded McDonald’s, Walmart, Burger King, Whole Foods and other companies to require their tomato growers to improve pay and conditions for 30,000 workers. Its Fair Food Program has an elaborate enforcement apparatus, overseen by a retired New York judge, that has greatly reduced abuses like bullying and sexual harassment by crew leaders.

“We’re seeing a bunch of different models to help farmworkers,” said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. “The question is, Are they scalable?”

Perhaps so. Greg Asbed, co-founder of the Immokalee group, said its program was being extended to 10,000 more workers, starting at Florida bell pepper farms.

And Walmart — to the applause of labor advocates — has taken the lead in expanding the Fair Food Program beyond Florida, requiring tomato suppliers in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia to comply.

“This is a progressive program that can do a lot of good,” said Marilee McInnis, a Walmart spokeswoman. “This program helps reach the goal we are all trying to reach, which is improved treatment of workers in the produce industry.”

Whole Foods has begun placing a “Fair Food” logo on many Florida tomatoes in its stores; Walmart will soon do the same.

But experts say there is much still to do.

Margaret Gray, an Adelphi University political science professor and author of “Labor and the Locavore,” lauded the Immokalee efforts and other movements but said they had not helped enough farmworkers and had done too little to raise wages for backbreaking work. The median wage for the nation’s farm laborers is $9.17 an hour.

Here in Vermont, Migrant Justice has been pressing Ben & Jerry’s since December, asking the company not just to enforce a conduct code, but also to offer its farmers a premium for meeting higher standards, which would enable them to pay their workers more.

On June 19, the day before the protests in Burlington and 16 other cities, Ben & Jerry’s signed an agreement with Migrant Justice, pledging to develop an overall, detailed code of conduct. (The protests proceeded, organizers said, to keep the heat on Ben & Jerry’s.)

“Our whole mission and value system, it’s to ensure people in our supply chain have a dignified life,” said Rob Michalak, Ben & Jerry’s global director of social mission. He said the company had already incorporated some Milk With Dignity standards into its own program.

“With the dairy supply chain, you might always have outlier farmers that have issues,” Mr. Michalak said. “If you have one substandard farm, that’s one too many.”

Mr. Ramirez, the Guatemalan dairy worker, turned to Migrant Justice in part because he felt trapped on a farm just south of the Canadian border, where he oversees the milking of 240 cows during his shift. He became an enthusiastic member after being invited to a Saturday assembly with lunch, a soccer game and a wide-ranging discussion about dairy workers’ problems. He was able to go only because the group provided a college student to drive him there.

After working four-and-a-half years, Mr. Ramirez said, he earns just $9 an hour, less than Vermont’s $9.15 minimum wage. (Farmworkers are not covered by federal and most states’ wage laws.)

“I like the work, but it’s not a just environment,” said Mr. Ramirez, who works nearly 70 hours a week. “I’ve had just six days off in my four-and-a-half years here, and that’s usually because I had to go to the Guatemalan Consulate. I would love to have a regular day off once in a while.”

Mr. Ramirez, 23, lives in an apartment inside the barn filled with the smell of cows.

Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, said too many of North Carolina’s 15,000 tobacco workers also lived in poor housing — often with too few showers, toilets without partitions and broken washing machines that prevent workers from cleaning their sweat-drenched clothes. He talked of workers dying of heatstroke and growers cheating workers on wages, while using Mexican labor brokers who demand bribes from the migrant workers.

“All these problems can’t be resolved unless these workers are organized and can flag the problems themselves,” Mr. Velasquez said. “Workers need to be able to speak up without fearing retaliation.”

In May, Mr. Velasquez’s union protested at the shareholders’ meeting of R.J. Reynolds, one of the largest purchasers of North Carolina tobacco. He is urging the company to require growers to assure freedom of association, without fear of retaliation, to ease the way to unionization.

David Howard, an R.J. Reynolds spokesman, said that the company had pushed growers to improve housing and training to comply with labor laws, but that it was resisting what it considered unreasonable demands from the union, known by its acronym, FLOC. “R.J. Reynolds cannot protect freedom of association by compelling growers to collectively bargain with FLOC, no matter how many times FLOC asks us to do so,” he said.

The Equitable Food Initiative is pursuing a different approach. At farms that have agreed to abide by the initiative (now independent of Oxfam America), substantial training on food safety is provided, coupled with higher pay to motivate workers and reduce turnover. At each participating farm, a leadership committee that includes top managers as well as migrant laborers is supposed to air any problems, like abusive crew leaders and threats of bacterial contamination.

So far, 12 growers have joined the initiative, but just six of their farms, starting with a California strawberry farm, have been certified, covering 2,000 workers. The group hopes to certify 100 farms over the next few years.

Kurt Schweitzer, president of Keystone Fruit Marketing, is proud that his company’s Vidalia onion farm in Walla Walla, Wash., which supplies Costco, has been certified. He said the workers had received extensive training and were paid at least $15 an hour. “This really shows these workers that their jobs are important,” he said.

“I love the whole concept that Costco or Walmart are going arm-in-arm down the aisle, saying we have a responsibility and want to work with you, rather than just saying, give us a once-a-year audit and we know things are fine, and we’ll put our blinders on,” Mr. Schweitzer said.

In Vermont, not every farmer is as enthusiastic. Many dairy farmers say they feel beleaguered — most of all from seesawing milk prices, but also from environmentalists, animal rights activists and now labor groups.

Tom Gates, a manager at St. Albans Creamery, a cooperative of about 430 farms in Vermont that supplies Ben & Jerry’s, said the farmers shared the ice cream maker’s vision of treating workers well. He notes that at most dairy farms, the owners work side by side with the migrant workers. “Some groups think farmers don’t value their labor — nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Migrant Justice, Ben & Jerry’s and the farmers still have many issues to thrash out. On farms with only two or three migrant workers, for example, it might not be so easy to give workers one day off each week because cows need to be milked three times a day.

But Victor Diaz, a dairy laborer from Mexico who works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, expressed optimism that things would soon get better.

“Ben & Jerry’s is feeling the pressure from many people,” he said. “If it wasn’t feeling all that pressure, everything would just remain the same.”

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