6 Questions for Rafaela Rodriguez of the Milk With Dignity Program

 

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it? 

My name is Rafaela Rodriguez, I am a social worker who is currently working with the Milk with Dignity Program. I am a lead auditor for the third party monitor called the Milk with Dignity Standards Council. As someone who enjoys working with different people and facilitating dialogue and solutions, it has been an exciting opportunity to work alongside farmers and farmworkers to implement the Milk with Dignity Program to improve conditions on dairy farms.

 

Tell us a little about your organization and issues.

The Milk with Dignity Program is based in Vermont and was created by Migrant Justice, a non-profit that grew out of the needs, desires, and human rights organizing vision of Vermont’s community of immigrant farmworkers.  Through popular education and regular membership assemblies and coordinating committee meetings, Migrant Justice’s membership defined the Milk with Dignity Program as its solution to ensuring human rights in the dairy industry, from fair wages and schedules to health and safety and other working conditions. My organization, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, plays the unique role of supporting farmers and workers together to meet the human rights standards established in the program.

 

What do you see as the central challenge facing farmworkers and farmers  in Vermont right now?

I would say that there are a lot of intertwined challenges. For farmers, it is a very tough time to be selling milk, as prices have dropped significantly from previous years. This puts pressure on them to cut costs and unfortunately most of their expenses have stayed the same or increased.  As for farmworkers, I think they also deal with their own set of challenges, starting from language barriers in a state where Spanish is not commonly spoken. Farmworkers are isolated due to the remoteness of farms and many thus have a hard time finding resources that are accessible to them. In this way, the Milk with Dignity Program will be a resource to both farmers and farmworkers.

The Milk with Dignity Program will be a resource for workers through two mechanisms: a worker-support line where workers can call with any questions or issues that arise on the farm, and an annual audit where the MDSC will talk with workers as well as with farmers and will walk through farm worksites in order to ensure compliance with the standards in the Code of Conduct. The program is also a resource for farmers, because it facilitates communication between employees and employers. The MDSC will be there to solve problems that have not been brought up yet or haven’t had a solution before, and this will hopefully also generate conversations between farmers and farmworkers that lead to ongoing improvements. An important part of our mission is to facilitate improvements on the farm on timelines that reflect what farmers’ resources are and to come up with an agreeable plans to make such changes, if any, when they are needed.

 

What is your approach to problem solving when farmworkers talk to the the MDSC?

There are a few mechanisms that facilitate problem solving within the Milk with Dignity Program. One of those mechanisms is the worker support line where a worker can call 24 hours a day with questions about the program or a problem that is happening  within their farm. The way we approach all calls is that we want to gather all information available from those involved in a certain situation, including from farm owners or managers. Once we gather all this information, we want to bring together the farmworker and farmer to think through how to best resolve an issue. We do not want to impose a certain solution for a problem but rather facilitate a solution to come out of those who are being affected. In this way folks can actively form part of the solution.

You recently had a big win at Ben and Jerry’s. What’s the next step for the Milk With Dignity campaign?

At the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, we play a complementary role to Migrant Justice in the implementation of the Milk with Dignity Program.  As a farmworker-led organization, Migrant Justice has the responsibility to set the direction for program.  At this time, after they and Ben & Jerry’s reached an agreement that has led to the Program’s rollout on farms selling to Ben & Jerry’s, Migrant Justice will consider discussing how the Program can work in other dairy brands’ supply chains as well.

Our current focus at the MDSC is the implementation of the program in Ben & Jerry’s supply chain.  Once Milk with Dignity is fully rolled out, it will cover the 85 or so farms that form the company’s Northeast dairy supply chain, responsible for the great majority of its global production.  This means orienting farmers as they enroll and supporting Migrant Justice in educating workers on their rights and responsibilities under the program.  It also means supporting farmers in compliance with those rights through a combination of regular farm audits and responses to any worker complaints and inquiries we may receive.

 

Vermont is often seen as a model for small scale, sustainable local food systems. How does farm worker equity fit into that image? What are some things we should know about what’s really happening in Vermont’s local food system?

The Milk with Dignity Program is one of the most exciting developments on the cutting edge of the food movement today, where the definition of sustainability is being broadened to include sustainable labor practices.  You can’t talk about ethical food without talking about the human rights of the workers involved in the production of that food.  Milk with Dignity has made that clear.

The postcard image of Vermont -- with its rolling green mountains, bucolic red barns, and family farmers -- misses a lot of things, chief among them the reliance on immigrant workers across the state.  When local food becomes commoditized and images are marketed to consumers as a proxy for values, erasures happen.  As the food movement seeks to broaden its base and deepen its values, we need to be conscious of those erasures and support efforts like this program that helps ensure the protection of the rights of all whose work contributes to dairy products.

 

Thank you, Rafaela, for sharing your story with us!