March 17, 2017
Justice for Migrant Workers in Vermont!
By Julianne DeGuardi
Similar to New York State, which I covered in an earlier post, the dairy industry is a crucial economic engine in neighboring Vermont, bringing roughly $2.2 billion annually to the state each year and accounting for over 70% 0f agricultural sales. Vermont’s dairy farms also rely heavily on migrant labor. One of the migrant farm workers whom I met at a dairy farm in Hermon, NY, had previously worked on a farm in Vermont and recently moved back to Vermont to work on a different farm. In one of our first few conversations on the farm in Hermon, he mentioned that he preferred working in Vermont because there is more support for the workers there when compared with New York. Although it is often difficult to find the time due to such long work hours, in Vermont he has had the opportunity to participate in assemblies for farm workers where they can discuss issues in the workplace. His story pushed me to learn more about this opportunity for workers and the advocacy organizations that are involved.
One of the most important organizations is Migrant Justice or Justicia Migrante, based in Burlington, VT. Migrant Justice is similar to the migrant advocacy organizations in New York such as the Worker Justice Center of New York and the Workers Center of Central New York, which I have discussed in previous posts. I recently had the opportunity to speak with an employee from Migrant Justice (I’ll refer to her as María in this post) to learn more about the dairy industry in Vermont as well as this organization and some of their initiatives.
María explained that in Vermont the dairy farms are far smaller than those in New York and have a smaller number of workers. Ernesto explained to me that on the farm in Hermon, NY, he was one of roughly 20 Hispanic workers; however, on the farms where he has worked in Vermont, he is one of only three workers. María noted that as a result of the small size of these farms, they are not eligible for funding from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). On larger farms, with over ten employees, federal OSHA funds are utilized for health and safety trainings, as well as to pay staff to conduct surprise inspections to ensure that OSHA regulations are being met. However, since it is not possible for OSHA to inspect all farms as well as other workplaces throughout the US, large farms are prioritized; consequently, federal OSHA funds are not used to pay staff to inspect farms with ten or less employees unless a complaint is filed. Perhaps because of this, many of the workers on Vermont farms live in houses or trailers on the farms that are in very poor condition.
Migrant Justice was established in response to these concerns, as well as specifically in response to the death of a migrant worker on a dairy farm in 2009, a tragedy which stemmed from lack of proper training prior to using dangerous machinery. María explained that Migrant Justice is one of the only organizations that is “member led or member based,” which means that the migrant farm workers themselves have the opportunity to become members of the organization and work together by participating in assemblies (asambleas) that occur in various regions throughout Vermont at least twice a month. At these assemblies workers are encouraged to bring reports from their areas in order to discuss any issues in their living or workplace that need to be addressed and resolved. Vermont’s smaller size, when compared to New York, enables the organization to reach more workers on various farms throughout Vermont.
Migrant Justice also offers a hotline that workers can call for emergencies or any other concerns, and they are planning to begin a 24/7 hotline soon. Furthermore, the Mexican Consulate visits twice a year with an attorney in order to assist migrant workers with getting passports and matriculas (a type of identification offered by the Mexican government). Migrant Justice also collaborates with other organizations such as the Vermont Workers Center, with whom they are currently working to draft a universal health care policy, and with three University of Vermont programs called Huertas, Bridges to Health, and the Vermont Migrant Education Program. In addition to legal, health, and educational resources, Migrant Justice provides entertainment for workers by organizing an end of the year party and an annual soccer tournament in a central location such as Burlington, where teams from New York and New Hampshire are also welcome to attend.
One of Migrant Justice’s most recent legislative achievements was the 2013 Driver’s License Campaign, which permits all residents of the state of Vermont, regardless of immigration status, to apply for and obtain a Vermont driver’s license. Alongside this victory, Migrant Justice also lobbied for the Fair and Impartial Policing Bill, which seeks to curb racial profiling. (As of this writing, it appears as though the House of the Vermont General Assembly has approved the bill; however, the Senate has yet to pass the bill.)
In addition to these legislative initiatives, Migrant Justice has shifted their focus toward working with corporations, such as Ben and Jerry’s, that use milk from Vermont dairy farms employing migrant workers. Prior to my conversation with María, I had recently visited the Ben and Jerry’s factory just outside of Burlington, where I learned more about the company’s social entrepreneurial initiatives such as using local and fair trade ingredients in their products. During my visit I couldn’t help but wonder if Ben and Jerry’s has taken any initiatives to support migrant farm workers on Vermont dairy farms. Later I read on Migrant Justice’s website that Ben and Jerry’s had signed an Agreement to Cooperate with the organization’s “Milk with Dignity Campaign”, but María clarified that the logistics of this agreement are still being discussed.
The “Milk with Dignity Campaign,” calls upon large food corporations to take responsibility for and provide monetary support to combat the abuses of farm worker rights in their supply chains. This program was modeled after a program in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which makes corporations responsible for the workers in their food chain. The Campaign contains five key elements:
1. The creation of a code of conduct, with zero tolerance standards for housing and workplace conditions on farms, such as farm workers’ right to have a full eight hours of sleep.
2. Education: providing migrant farm workers with the opportunity to learn about their rights that are included the code of conduct.
3. Benefit for farmers (owners of the farm): corporations must pay a premium for the milk that they purchase from farmers, and this additional money will be used for farmers to implement the standards of the code of conduct on their farm.
4. A monitoring/enforcement mechanism must be established in order to ensure that the standards on the code of the conduct are being met and that the extra money that farmers receive from corporations is being directly used to make the changes necessary on the farm to improve workers’ living and working conditions.
5. A legally binding agreement must be signed by corporations in order to ensure that the program is enforceable under the law.
Although Ben and Jerry’s agreed to negotiate these terms with Migrant Justice, the company has yet to sign the legally binding agreement. Thus, Migrant Justice is continuing to work diligently with Ben and Jerry’s to encourage them to agree to this program.
In addition to this campaign, similar to many organizations throughout the country, Migrant Justice is currently working alongside the Vermont state government to protect migrant workers from President Trump’s recent Executive Order on immigration. Vermont Governor Phil Scott recently designed a bill to provide protections against the executive order that would restrict the role of the state and federal police in Federal immigration investigations and would outlaw the establishment of a registry in Vermont based on religion or national origin. Migrant Justice fully supports this legislation; however, Will Lambek, one of Migrant Justice employees, states that other steps must be taken, including ensuring the implementation of the fair and impartial policing policy by all law enforcement agencies throughout the state. He states that the members of the organization feel uneasy: “people don’t want to go back to living in the shadows.”