Migrant Justice, a nonprofit organization advocating for the rights of dairy farm workers in the northeast, organized a mass call-in day on March 3. Supporters phoned the Maine-based corporate office of Mike Vail, the president of Hannaford Supermarket, to demand that the grocery chain join the Milk with Dignity program.
The Milk with Dignity program asks corporations like Hannaford to require their supplier farms to comply with the Milk with Dignity code of conduct, which ensures that migrant workers are given quality housing, fair salaries, time off and other standard workplace rights.
Farmworker and member of Migrant Justice’s Coordinating Committee Elizabeth Ramirez explained that the event was organized to increase public pressure on the company.
“These sorts of actions are necessary for large companies like Hannaford to take responsibility for the rights of dairy workers in their supply chain,” she said.
Farmworkers like Ramirez, who provide the labor behind Hannaford’s store-brand dairy products, are vulnerable to exploitation due to consolidation and globalization in the food industry, developments that allow powerful retail brands to leverage their purchasing power and demand low prices from suppliers, according to Migrant Justice’s website.
Migrant Justice gives voice to migrant workers who might otherwise be anxious to speak out about these issues because they fear retribution from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the call-in day was an opportunity for the general population and concerned customers to uplift migrant voices, too.
Sunrise Middlebury, a campus group committed to climate justice, worked closely with Migrant Justice on the call-in effort. Volunteers from the group took shifts calling individuals on a Migrant Justice list of past supporters to encourage them to contact Hannaford directly.
Partnerships Coordinator Sophie Liebel ’23 spoke to the overlap between Sunrise’s climate mission and farmworker rights.
“Environmental justice is about fighting for communities that are left out of mainstream environmental circles and policies,” Liebel said. “Migrant farmworkers are the backbone of our agricultural system, yet they are underpaid, receive few protections and benefits, work in hazardous conditions and have little bargaining power.”
The day resulted in over 350 confirmed calls to Hannaford, and there were likely many more unconfirmed calls that took place, according to Liebel. “We were really pleased with it,” Ramirez said of the turnout. “For over 300 people to call the office of the president and express the expectation that they take responsibility for proper treatment of workers in their supply chain is a positive result.”
After years of negotiating and campaigning by Migrant Justice, Ben & Jerry’s signed an agreement to officially join the Milk with Dignity program in 2017. Following this success, Migrant Justice is determined to convince Hannaford to join as well.
Thus far, the only response from Hannaford has been to release the following public statement: “Hannaford is a proud purchaser of Vermont products, including milk and dairy items. We expect all those who supply goods to our company to abide by the law and ensure that workers are treated humanely and fairly.”
Still, the group is undeterred.
“We are not going to give up until we get a yes,” Ramirez said.
Though Migrant Justice is not advocating a boycott of Hannaford dairy products, the group encourages customers to communicate their support for Milk with Dignity directly to the company whenever they have an opportunity to do so.
Middlebury College students can contribute to Migrant Justice’s mission by participating in events like the call-in day as well as by spreading awareness of the injustice migrant workers face — awareness that seems to be lacking in the student body and state in general according to Liebel.
“Vermont prides itself on its dairy industry. The fact that much of this dairy is produced by exploiting the labor of undocumented workers is not a good look for the state. As Vermonters and Americans, we have to start realizing that the reason we have food on the table is because of the underpaid, overworked migrant families that tend to our farms,” Liebel said.
Ideal Dowling '22 is an Editor at Large.
She previously served as a copy editor and Local section editor.
Dowling is majoring in Political Science and minoring in French and History. During the summer of 2021, she worked as a consultant for the startup accelerator Aegis Ventures and as a research assistant for Professor Stanley Sloan as he worked on his book "De-Trumping U.S. Foreign Policy: Can Biden Bring America Back?" In addition to her work at The Campus, Dowling is captain of Middlebury's women's squash team and an employee at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.