Dairy farmworkers and advocates are criticizing a new fair trade label for dairy products. Fair Trade USA’s new Fair Trade dairy program is rolling out on select sku’s of Chobani Greek Yogurt. The leading Greek yogurt brand has partnered with Fair Trade USA for Milk Matters, a customized audit process for dairy supply chains to ensure fair treatment of workers, among other laudable goals. Yet the certification process and market entry has attracted resistance from the most unlikely sources: the dairy farm workers and their advocates that such a program should be benefitting.
Fair Trade is a popular, market-driven framework that aims to support the livelihoods, working conditions, communities and environments of workers in corporate supply chains. The Fair Trade dairy program was designed to support the Worker Wellbeing vertical of Chobani’s Milk Matters initiative. Farmworker organizations in Chobani’s home base of upstate New York have instead considered it a compromise of farmworker protection and empowerment in dairy supply chains. Fair Trade USA’s dairy program was developed in a multi-stakeholder process, yet does not have farmworker representation or leadership in any of the director-level, standards-setting, standards governance or certification advisory roles. This means the standard does not contain any direct way for farmworkers to report violations, seek remedies and participate in the standard. Meanwhile, Fair Trade USA board directors leverage Wal-Mart and Green Mountain Coffee as both professional backgrounds and fundraising sources for the certifier, while standards are typically developed in close cooperation with the brands that will market such labels to consumers.
Fair Trade USA is no stranger to controversy. After the U.S. Department of Labor confirmed a Honduran grower supplying the Fair Trade USA-certified Fyffe’s melons was not paying minimum wage and violating Honduran labor laws, Fair Trade USA claimed there was no evidence of human right abuses until a public campaign pressured them to decertify. Fair Trade USA has also attracted controversy for the past several years, since they broke off from the international Fair Trade system in order prioritize supply chain development for multichannel retailers and consumer brands. And yet organizations such as Fair Trade USA also face competitive pressures, as multinational brand holders are moving away from such third party seals and developing their own internal audit processes, out of the light of public scrutiny or accountability to worker-led organizations.
Dairy farming is incredibly difficult work and dairy farmers themselves have to contend with erratic farmgate prices, vertical integration and consolidation of processors, and shifting demand and consumer trends, such as increased butter and cheese sales which require whole milk, and steep declines in fluid milk consumption, particularly of skim or low fat milks. Many dairy farmers provide resources such as housing, stable work and more for workers, but this is not always the case. Dairy farmworkers, who are largely immigrant or undocumented, have mostly been invisible in dairy farm policy conversations, yet farmers and the industry as a whole could not function without their efforts.
According to Fair World Project, around 80% of dairy farmworkers in New York State work on farms that are too small to be regulated by OSHA. Nearly two-thirds of dairy farmworkers reported being injured on the job, most of them even requiring medical attention. Even if a farmworker dies on the job, OSHA cannot inspect or fine the farm. Under the Fair Trade USA standards, such small farms with under 6 workers are not required to give workers pay slips or written contracts, access to first aid supplies or medical care for workplace injuries, maintain recordkeeping of workplace accidents, create a grievance policy and procedure and prevent retaliation or deportation of workers who file grievances, as well as policy, prevention and training around sexual harassment, which is endemic to farm work. Such policies are listed as certification best practices, not requirements for a farm to be certified Fair Trade. And farms that provide housing are only required for such shelter to meet basic minimum standards of safety and sanitation after three years of being certified Fair Trade. And the Fair Trade standard does not create an exception to dairy farmworker’s at-will employment status, meaning that they can be fired without cause.
Migrant Justice, a Vermont-based farmworker-led organization has created their own worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) certification to protect farm workers, called Milk With Dignity. Milk With Dignity has been adopted by Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with no disruption to pricing or supply chains, and Migrant Justice and their allies are pressuring Hannaford Supermarkets to do likewise. As opposed to a standard developed with farm owners and corporate marketing executives, the Milk with Dignity Program was designed and led by farmworkers themselves, who are most familiar with the labor processes and challenges of the work. Such worker-driven frameworks have been proven by a ten-year Harvard longitudinal study to be the most effective way to protect human rights in corporate supply chains. WSRs create legally binding frameworks and enforcement mechanisms with corporate product buyers that ensure fair pay and prevent forced labor, harassment and sexual violence on farms. Fair trade standards do not.
According to Marita Canedo, the Milk With Dignity Program Coordinator for Migrant Justice, “Milk With Dignity is led by the workers and has enforceable standards. We build the voice, the capacity, and the power of the community. The Milk with Dignity program breaks new ground by incorporating requirements into buyers contracts that spell out not just quality but an entire list of vital human rights protections that suppliers must meet to sell to brands who have signed onto the program. To sell to them, farms must meet a range of standards for wages, health and safety requirements, housing conditions, scheduling requirements, as well as non-discrimination policy, non-retaliation, and other requirements to foster a safe, dignified workplace. These standards were created out of workers’ conversations and they remain front and center in the implementation.”
Another distinction is how the Fair Trade premium is distributed. Milk With Dignity mandates that farms use their premiums to improve conditions so they can comply with the code of conduct. In the Fair Trade USA framework, none of the premium is required to be invested in improving working and housing conditions. A percentage goes directly to farm owners without strings attached, and another share goes to a “community development fund”.
Fair World Project emphasizes that, “The FTUSA program appears designed with no intention that the standards actually be met, with no way for its designated monitors to determine what actual working conditions are… their enforcement systems lack ways for workers to understand their rights, report violations of those rights, be protected from retaliation for attempting to enforce standards, or participate in any meaningful way in monitoring their employers’ compliance. The program fails to address major structural issues in the dairy industry, including the economic pressures squeezing small-scale dairy farm owners and farmworkers, and environmental challenges.”
These economic pressures can also vary by state. A large scale national brand such as Chobani sources from large and small farms in New York and Idaho. New York has phased in a higher minimum wage, which is $12.50 as of 12/31/20. Meanwhile, minimum wage in Idaho is $7.25. Fair Trade dairy not rationalize this variance or mandate a living wage based on cost of living or quality of life factors, nor does it square up that Idaho workers lack the overtime protections and the right to unionize that New York workers now have, thanks to efforts by the very worker-led organizations and allies that are calling out Fair Trade dairy as inadequate.
These contradictions exist because Fair Trade dairy does not center workers or consider them rights-holders in their framework. Instead, the certification centers the brand owners and farm owners in standards development and marketing. Consumers are led to believe that they are buying a product that instead may actually fall short of the reality. Meanwhile, farmworker groups that reached out to Chobani to work together on designing a more worker-centered program were rebuffed.
“We sat at the table with Chobani multiple times and delivered a memo asking that they recognize and support the right of all workers in their chain to unionize. But Chobani hasn’t listened to the workers, instead they created their “Milk Matters” campaign without the voices of workers” said Crispin Hernandez, an organizer with the Workers Center of Central New York and a former dairy farmworker.
Indeed, farmworkers must be at the center of food system reform efforts. Farmworkers have always been excluded from basic labor protections, going back to the days of chattel slavery, up through Reconstruction, westward U.S. settler expansion, Jim Crow and even the New Deal labor reforms, which failed to protect farmworkers of all races. The working conditions and compensation rates of the farmworkers who grow and harvest our food are still just a few steps away from the chattel slavery system that our food system was founded on. Today, with farm work done mostly by immigrants, undocumented or guest workers, such exploitation is highly racialized.
A number of states, such as New York, California and Washington, have already passed some reforms to protect farmworker organizing and/or phase in overtime protections. But true food system reform would mean federally protecting collective bargaining and unionization drives, which has historically shown to be the most effective path to stability and prosperity for workers. It would mean comprehensive immigration reform, including abolishing guest worker programs, guaranteeing all labor protections to farmworkers and providing a clear path to citizenship. It would mean having farmworkers at the table and setting the agenda. Now that would truly be Fair Trade.