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Vermont Farmworkers Go to Amsterdam to Fight for “Milk With Dignity”

Stonewalled by a US supermarket chain, farmworkers took the struggle to its parent company in Amsterdam.

Farmworkers march to a Hannaford supermarket to protest the supermarket chain's refusal to purchase milk from dairy suppliers who have committed to a set of fair labor practices, on May 1, 2022, in Burlington, Vermont.

The Vermont farmworkers organization, Migrant Justice, scored an enormous victory in 2017 when it forced Ben & Jerry’s to join its fair labor program, Milk with Dignity. That program guarantees better wages and working conditions for workers on farms in its dairy supply chain. On the heels of this breakthrough, Migrant Justice launched a new struggle in 2019 to get the supermarket chain, Hannaford, to join the program.

Hannaford has one of the most extensive dairy supply chains in Vermont and the region, so if farmworkers succeed in pushing it to join Milk with Dignity, it would dramatically improve the atrocious conditions most farmworkers face. A Migrant Justice report found that half are paid below Vermont’s minimum wage; 40 percent have no days off; 30 percent suffer work-related injuries and illnesses; and 20 percent have had their wages stolen. Truthout’s interviews with workers confirmed that farms in Hannaford’s supply chain have all these problems.

But instead of joining Milk with Dignity, Hannaford refused even to meet with Migrant Justice. So, farmworkers decided to turn up the heat by taking their fight to its parent company, Ahold Delhaize, in the Netherlands. In this interview, Migrant Justice organizers Marita Canedo and Will Lambek discuss the struggle of farmworkers, the solidarity they built with Dutch organizations and unions, and their plans to escalate the struggle against Hannaford this May Day.

Ashley Smith: Migrant Justice has been engaged in a struggle to get companies that source their dairy products from Vermont’s farms to join the program Milk with Dignity. What is that program and how does it guarantee better wages, benefits and conditions for farmworkers?

Marita Canedo: Milk with Dignity is a worker-led program created to address the lack of labor laws to protect agricultural workers in Vermont and the Northeast. We followed the example of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their Fair Food Program.

Workers created their own standards for wages, benefits, conditions and protection against retaliation and abuse. We pressured large corporations that source their dairy products from Vermont’s farms to join Milk with Dignity.

The program requires corporations to sign a binding, legal contract mandating them to pay higher premiums for dairy products to farmers so that they can comply with Milk with Dignity’s standards. Farmers also have to sign, promise to abide by the standards and allow workers to access the program’s educational services.

All of this is overseen by a third party monitoring body, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council. It certifies that farms in the program comply with standards. It also provides a 24-7 bilingual complaint line.

It creates a win-win situation for all parties: Companies guarantee that human rights are respected in their supply chain, farmers benefit with higher premiums, and workers get improved wages, benefits and conditions.

We have proved it works when we succeeded in getting Ben & Jerry’s to join Milk with Dignity. Workers on the farms in their supply chain have dramatically improved their conditions and gained confidence to speak up for themselves and their fellow workers.

After your victory with Ben & Jerry’s, you launched a new campaign in 2019 to pressure the grocery store chain, Hannaford, to join Milk with Dignity. How has Hannaford responded?

Will Lambek: Hannaford is one of the largest supermarket chains in the Northeast with close to 200 stores. They are also one of the largest buyers of dairy products from farms in Vermont and throughout the region.

So, if and when they join the program, it will have an incredible impact on a huge number of farms, improving their financial conditions and protecting the human rights of many more farmworkers.

Workers have been disciplined for speaking up and their work conditions have actually gotten worse.

When Hannaford proved unresponsive, workers decided to launch a public campaign to put pressure directly on the company. Workers and consumers have united to demand the company end the atrocious conditions and human rights violations in their supply chain and join Milk with Dignity.

Farmworkers have led protests at stores and at Hannaford’s headquarters in Portland, Maine. Consumers have tabled at stores, leafletted shoppers, written thousands of postcards, made thousands of phone calls and sent thousands of emails to Hannaford President Mike Vail.

Many agricultural organizations, labor unions, environmental groups, LGBT groups and elected officials have called on Hannaford to join Milk with Dignity. Some have challenged Hannaford’s attempt to wash its image by ramping up its community grant program.

For example, the Vermont Pride Center told Hannaford, which had been the principal sponsor of Vermont’s annual Pride Parade, that they could no longer accept Hannaford’s money if they refused to sit down with farmworkers and create protections for, among other things, LGBTQ farmworkers who are milking cows in their supply chain.

In response to all this pressure, Hannaford is trying to trick consumers with what we call a knockoff Milk with Dignity program, which replicates the program in form, but not in function. While it claims to protect workers’ rights, its only real impact has been to put workers at greater risk by subjecting them to retaliation.

Canedo: Hannaford and their Dutch parent company, Ahold Delhaize, have run a PR campaign boasting that they do not have problems in their supply chain. Hannaford promised to conduct their own audit of the farms in their supply chains, but they never consulted workers and they did not issue any public report.

Ahold Delhaize set up a “speak up line” for workers to register complaints and promised to investigate them. Farmworkers used it but had to wait months for any kind of response.

When Ahold Delhaize did respond, it denied that some of the farms were in their supply chain, a claim we contest, and in the rest of the cases they deemed the complaints were without merit. In those cases, their investigators only spoke with the farmers and managers, who have an obvious interest in covering up violations.

They did not talk with the workers and the company did not protect them from retaliation. So, workers have been disciplined for speaking up and their work conditions have actually gotten worse.

The farmers posted signs prohibiting organizers from visiting workers and in at least one case, angrily demanded to know who had submitted the complaint, making workers fearful of violent retaliation. So, all we’ve seen from Hannaford and Ahold Delhaize is refusals to meet, threats against farmworkers’ protests and fake reforms.

Faced with this obstruction from Hannaford, you’ve started to target its parent company Ahold Delhaize. What have you done and what has been their response?

Lambek: Ahold Delhaize is the enormous Dutch multinational that owns Hannaford. While they are powerful, they are also vulnerable because they boast about their ethics code and commitment to standards in their supply chains.

Like other corporations, they are invested in the language of social responsibility. They advertise that they follow the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the International Labor Organization, and will comply with the Corporation Sustainability Due Diligence Directive.

They use this alphabet soup of corporate social responsibility to cover up the reality of exploitation and oppression in their supply chain. And they brush aside workers talking about their lived experience of these problems on farms in their supply chain.

Just like Hannaford, they have refused to meet with us, saying they want to consult with all concerned parties, not just workers. This is not only evasive, but also proof that the only players they take seriously are corporate leaders, farm bosses and industry lobbyists.

Milk with Dignity, by contrast, has a collaborative approach; it engages the corporations, farmers and most importantly the workers to ensure human rights and better wages and conditions in the dairy supply chain. But the corporations know that that will crimp their profit margins and power.

So, you decided to go to Amsterdam and attend Ahold Delhaize’s annual shareholders meeting; reach out to Dutch unions, organizations and migrant workers; and build solidarity between your struggle and theirs. How did it go?

Canedo: We secured a pass from a shareholder to attend their meeting and bring farmworkers’ stories about the terrible conditions in Hannaford’s supply chain. But, because of travel delays, we arrived late, and they refused to let us enter the meeting.

We did try to make an appointment, but they stonewalled us. We were able to meet with Dutch activist groups and unions to build solidarity in our common struggle against Ahold Delhaize.

In advance, we contacted the Dutch chapter of environmentalist group, Friends of the Earth. They told us about their successful lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell to force them to meet the commitments under the Paris climate agreement and their plans to go after other big polluters in the Netherlands.

They brought over a hundred of their members inside the shareholder’s meeting and protested the company’s complicity with climate change. When they came out, we talked with them.

Their experience was not all that different from ours. Ahold Delhaize boasts about its environmental policies, but just like with human rights in the supply chain, it’s a lot of talk without much substance behind it.

Lambek: One of the most exciting connections we made was with the largest Dutch union, FNV, which represents retail and warehouse workers at Ahold Delhaize’s grocery store chain called Albert Heijn. It is one of the biggest chains in the Netherlands.

We met with Albert Heijn’s workers who told us about their recent strike, which was one of the largest and most memorable strikes in recent Dutch history. They shut down the chain’s distribution centers, stopped stores from stocking shelves, garnered popular support and won a strong contract.

They told us that Albert Heijn has set up a two-tier system in their warehouses for Dutch and migrant workers. They directly employ Dutch workers but subcontract temp agencies that bring in mainly Polish migrant workers.

These agencies go to Poland and recruit workers, often on false pretenses. They work in distribution centers side by side with Dutch workers, but for lower wages and with fewer benefits and protections.

It was stunning to hear about the hierarchy of labor so similar to that in Vermont’s dairy farms. In the Dutch case, the hierarchy involves mainly nationality, while in ours it is both nationality and race. But the function is the same — to divide and rule workers.

FNV is fighting to break the company’s two-tier structure and fight for equal pay for equal work. Based on their experience, they immediately understood the struggle of Vermont’s migrant dairy workers.

We’re setting up a Zoom meeting for mainly Mexican migrant workers here in Vermont to talk with Polish temp workers in the Netherlands. Through such efforts, we hope to build international solidarity in our common struggle against Ahold Delhaize’s U.S. grocery chain, Hannaford, and their Dutch one, Albert Heijn.

What do you have planned now to escalate the struggle back here in the U.S. and in Vermont?

Canedo: This year’s May Day we are calling on Vermonters to have “A Day without Hannaford.” Farmworkers are asking their supporters to join our picket line at the Hannaford in Williston, Vermont, from dawn to late at night.

We will be asking all customers to shop elsewhere. We are showing Hannaford that we’re tired of them ignoring workers, refusing to meet, setting up fake programs, and claiming that there are no problems in their dairy supply chain.

Lambek: We’ve been marching on Hannaford stores for years on May Day, but now for the first time, we’ll be asking customers to respect our picket line and not shop at Hannaford for a day. Since Hannaford has not listened to workers and consumers calling on them to honor their commitment to human rights, it’s time to up the ante and hit them in their pocketbooks.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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