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Got Justice? Milk, farm workers, and Hannaford

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Labor, Spotlight

Hannaford is Maine’s second-largest employer with roughly 10,000 workers spread out over sixty-three stores. The chain has deep roots in Maine and is still headquartered in Saco, but it’s now fully-owned and operated by Dutch megacorp Ahold Delhaize, whose global sales topped $45 billion in 2019. As big as Hannaford’s footprint appears on first glance, its supply and production chain relies on many more people than those who work in its stores. Hannaford helps set the terms for farmers and producers across New England, touting its We Love Local campaign. “We’re proud to work with over 800 local companies, large and small, to bring you more than 7,000 high-quality products,” says Hannaford. But just how proud should they be of the working and living conditions in those 800 contracted companies? When it comes to Hannaford milk, the company should take a second look.

Vermont-based Migrant Justice has launched a New England-wide Milk with Dignity campaign asking Hannaford to sign an agreement to improve the lives of the workers who labor knee-deep in it, to bring hundreds of thousands of us our daily milk.

According to a June 21 press release from the group, “Farmworkers in Migrant Justice have found multiple avenues to urge the supermarket chain to join the program, finding widespread support among Hannaford customers. Thousands have written emails to the company President Mike Vail, hundreds have called the company, and supporters have held dozens of rallies outside stores around the region (including, most recently, the delivery of 1,200 signed postcards from customers calling for Milk with Dignity)… The campaign had already received support from national faith organizations, food and agriculture groups, and international human rights organizations.”

  Milk with Dignity rally. Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice.

To date, Hannaford has not replied to the campaign.

Pine and Roses’ Todd Chretien talked to Uriel A., a dairy worker in Vermont who is part of the Milk with Dignity campaign ahead of a short tour the group is making through Maine to spread the word. If you want to lend a hand, contact Migrant Justice and ask about their Milk with Dignity campaign.

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Todd Chretien: Thanks for speaking with me today, Uriel. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you ended up on a dairy farm in Vermont?

Uriel A.: I’m from Chiapas, Mexico. My parents and family all live there, including my two kids who are six and four years old. I used to work in a store that specialized in cowboy clothing, but I had to leave three years ago because the economy is terrible. I wanted to give my kids a better future, but it’s very hard. I haven’t been home in all that time, but I did get to talk to them by video on Father’s Day. Now I work on a dairy farm, along with my brother who had to leave Chiapas too, in East Montpellier. Thanks be to god, my farm is run by good people who are very kind. I earn a dignified salary and we have good housing. I get one day off a week and paid vacation time. But others aren’t as lucky.

TC: Before we get into the problems facing other workers, could you tell me a little about your job? What is difficult and what do you like?

UA: Well, we work twelve hours a day and we can never leave the cows alone and they have to be milked every day. There are 1,100 cows on my farm. Sometimes the cows, especially the young ones, don’t want to go where you want them to and that can be dangerous. And we have to work no matter the weather, it doesn’t matter if it’s cold or hot. There’s also a lot of dust everywhere and it can be very stressful if a cow gets sick or there’s a problem. But I’ve learned a lot in the three years I’ve been here. When I arrived, I didn’t know anything about working on a dairy farm. But now I can do a lot of different jobs and know how to help the cows if they are in trouble.

Dairy cows. Photo courtesy of UVM.

TC: Do you like the cows?

UA: Yes, I like the cows!

TC: I’m glad to hear it! Let’s get back to the other farms. What are the biggest problems facing dairy workers?

UA: Well, I have friends who have to work seven days a week. They receive very low wages and they don’t get any vacation time. Many of them also live in terrible conditions, sometimes there are five or six who have to stay in the same room and they suffer a lot in the cold.

TC: That brings us to Milk with Dignity. What is the goal of that campaign?

UA: Hannaford is a big company and they could really help improve the farm workers’ futures. We’ve asked Hannaford in many ways to support us: through testimonials, photos, videos, and many letters. We’ve sent them a lot of videos! But they haven’t replied to us at all. We were planning to spread the campaign to other states, like Maine, but the pandemic slowed us down. We’ve organized some rallies, but we need to do more.

TC: Why do you think Hannaford hasn’t responded to you?

UA: They want to wash their hands of it. They say they just get the milk after it’s bottled and so they aren’t responsible for the whole process that goes into it. They say they don’t know what happens before the milk arrives in their stores. But we’re out here working twelve hours a day in the heat and the cold. We want them to realize that we’re suffering during the whole process.

TC: Do you think the Milk with Dignity campaign can win?

UA: Yes, three years ago Ben & Jerry’s started working with us and that improved the conditions on many farms. We know campaigns like this can make a difference because we see it working. It’s really an inspiration that keeps us fighting to win decent conditions for everyone during our time in the United States.

 

Image courtesy of Migrant Justice.

Todd Chretien is a high school Spanish teacher, translator, and author. He is a member of the Pine and Roses editorial collective and Maine DSA.

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