Milk with Dignity organizers in March 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Migrant Justice

Even in Maine, a state known for small family-run farms, migrant workers are an important part of agricultural labor, including in dairy operations.

Migrant workers make up around 16 percent of hired agricultural labor in Maine, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Activists at a Vermont-based organization called Migrant Justice said that these workers are often exploited, from long working hours and wage theft, to unsafe housing and working conditions. The organization is pressuring Maine-based supermarket giant Hannaford to join its program for fair labor standards for dairy workers by holding its first speaking tour in Maine this week.

The organization has been working on the campaign for the past two years to have Hannaford supermarkets sign an agreement to join its Milk with Dignity program, Will Lambek at Migrant Justice said. By signing the agreement, the company would commit to sourcing its store-brand milk from farms enrolled in the Milk with Dignity program that have been vetted by a third-party auditor, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, to meet the organization’s standards. Those standards include fair wages, reasonable working hours, adequate housing and measures for health and safety.

Migrant Justice has extensively documented conditions on farms in Hannaford’s supply chain, Lambek said, through surveys and individual testimonies. Most of the organization’s documentation has focused on Hannaford’s Vermont supply chain, but Lambek said that the same issues endemic to Vermont dairy farms extend to those around the Northeast.

Migrant Justice found, for example, that about half of dairy workers make below minimum wage and around 20 percent have experienced wage theft. The average dairy worker puts in 60 to 80 hours per week with insufficient rest, including 12 hour shifts without breaks. Employer-provided housing is often overcrowded and in disrepair, with workers sharing rooms or sleeping in common spaces without running water, heat or working appliances. Work-related injuries from animals, machinery and chemicals are extremely high due to insufficient training and protection.

Milk with Dignity’s data about these conditions were collected in collaboration with a researcher in the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, Science, and Policy and the Tufts School of Public Health, and the results were then analyzed by the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic.

Though no Maine farms are currently part of the Milk with Dignity program, the group has made visits to Maine to make a record of the working conditions for dairy workers. In July 2021, the organization reported that on one farm, a family with a young child had been forced to live without heat in their housing. On another, the laborers were found to have worked seven days a week, only resting a half shift every two weeks.

Lambek said that dairy workers were hesitant to make any public statements for fear of retaliation.

The organization targeted Hannaford because of its broad reach, but also because it sees the company’s values aligning with its own mission. Hannaford is owned by the multinational company Ahold Delhaize, which in 2015 signed onto a program called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, on which Milk with Dignity’s model is based.

Hannaford has responded to past protests by stating it already has standards for suppliers to treat workers fairly.  

“We expect all our suppliers to follow the law and treat workers fairly,” Hannaford spokesperson Ericka Dodge told the Burlington Free Press in July 2020. “We require our suppliers to comply with standards of engagement — similar to a code of conduct — including provisions for: how they treat and compensate workers; maximum allowable working hours and days; premium pay for overtime; and workplace health and safety.”

Lambek hopes that Hannaford will follow the model set by Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s, which joined the Milk with Dignity program in October 2017.

“We’re at a time in history where workers of all kinds are seeking to have more of a voice in what happens to them on the job,” said Cynthia Phinney, president of the Maine American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. “One of the things that I thought was really great about the Milk with Dignity program is that their program works to support the dairy workers, but because of the way dairy is marketed and sold, Hannaford has the ultimate say on cost, which can tie the hands of the farmers with workers. The Milk with Dignity program is a great approach to solve this problem by supporting the farmers that can get caught in the middle.”

Migrant Justice’s campaign for Hannaford has received support from national faith organizations, food and agricultural organizations, as well as more than 4,000 individuals who have emailed the company CEO through a campaign on Action Network.

The organization has two more stops planned in Maine on its Dignity Tour before it moves on to other states in the Northeast.