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October 13, 2017

The Socially Responsible Way to Eat Ice Cream

Whether enjoying a dripping cone in the sizzling days of summer or a scoop of vanilla on top of some pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, ice cream is a year-round treat. If you’re a fan, you can now rest easier knowing that one popular ice cream maker is doing its part to improve workers’ rights, making that ice cream you love even more enjoyable.

Last week Ben & Jerry’s, in conjunction with Migrant Justice, took steps towards improving conditions for workers on its dairy farms. The company signed the Milk with Dignity agreement, a worker-driven social responsibility program that will guarantee fair and humane working conditions for dairy farmworkers in Vermont. This program borrows heavily from the Fair Food Program, a 2011 agreement between farmworkers, farmers, and retail food companies aimed at protecting workers in Florida’s tomato industry. Today the program incorporates other farms across the country—including tomatoes, strawberries and green bell peppers—to guarantee that the produce we purchase is farmed without the use of forced labor.

Milk with Dignity ensures basic workers’ rights for dairy farmworkers through defined wages, fair schedules, and appropriate housing. Through this landmark agreement, Ben and Jerry’s will provide incentive payments to farms that adhere to the standards of the agreement. These standards include the right to at least one day off a week and a guarantee that employees will be paid at least the state minimum wage.

Additionally, workers will be allotted time to rest between shifts and have housing accommodations that include beds, electricity, and clean running water – basic needs that many farmworkers currently live without. The agreement also creates a critical grievance mechanism—a 24-hour anonymous hotline—that protects workers who speak up.

This new agreement is based upon cooperation between farmworkers, farmers, and Ben and Jerry’s. It gives workers a seat at the decision-making table, and makes training sessions available, where workers can learn more about their rights, the Milk with Dignity agreement, and reporting violations. In addition to workers, lawyers at the Southern Poverty Law Center will monitor compliance through regular audits of supplier facilities. The Milk With Dignity Standards Council will oversee implementation of the program, ensuring that farmers who join the program commit to the standards and remain in compliance with the agreement.

According to a survey by Migrant Justice— the organization that advocated for and negotiated the agreement— about 40 percent of dairy workers in Vermont make less than the state minimum wage.  Moreover, some not only face excruciatingly long hours, but are also not allowed restroom breaks or time for meals. The problems surrounding farmworkers’ rights are further exacerbated because these employees are not typically covered by federal and state wage laws, including two major laws that protect workers in the United States— the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Farmworkers can be still be fired for organizing, are not guaranteed overtime pay, and are often not required to earn minimum wage.

Unfortunately, these practices are commonplace across the agriculture industry in the United States. But the Ben and Jerry’s agreement is an example of steps that industries and even individual companies can take to ensure humane conditions for workers. According to the International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation, about 1.7 million people are held in forced labor in the agriculture industry worldwide—facing terrible conditions, insufficient or no pay, and physical or emotional abuses. The Fair Food Program, and now the Milk with Dignity agreement, was the first agreement of its kind in the United States where workers, farmers, and retailers coordinate to ensure best practices.

Milk with Dignity is a response to concerns about dairy suppliers in Vermont failing to provide proper working conditions and pay for employees. The Ben and Jerry’s brand deserves credit for living out its values. As we have seen in Florida, and will hopefully see in Vermont, it only takes one agreement to begin a chain reaction and improve conditions for workers that may ripple across the globe.