Milk with Dignity: Enhancing Health and Safety in Dairy Workplaces and Housing

Milk with Dignity

2020 Update:

The Milk with Dignity Standards Council secures the human rights of dairy workers by enforcing labor and housing standards on farms participating in Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity Program and elevating working conditions over time through a collaborative process bringing together workers and farmers for a sustainable Northeast dairy industry. The Milk with Dignity Program is a groundbreaking step forward for a promising new approach to racial and economic justice and to corporate accountability: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR). The WSR model has been developed and implemented with great success in other industries, and now, Migrant Justice, a worker-led organization based in Vermont, has adapted the model for the first time to a new agricultural sector, the Northeast dairy industry. Our participatory model ensures a voice for historically excluded communities, and Milk with Dignity’s success will inspire and support the growth of this model to other low-wage economic sectors in dire need of innovative WSR efforts.

With funds provided by the City Market Seedling Grant in 2019, the Milk with Dignity Standards Council has been able to advance two crucial ongoing projects to address two identified needs relating to the health and safety of dairy farmworkers. Many farmworkers have also reported that they begin working without adequate safety training. Respiratory hazards arise both in worksites and in worker housing, much of which is adjacent to or directly above worksites. Respiratory hazards can arise from dust, manure, chemicals, such as those used for cows’ footbaths, and other exposures. Farms enrolled in the Milk with Dignity Program work together with MDSC to address these and other challenges, taking positive steps to protect health and safety and meet other standards for workers’ human rights.

With help from the City Market Seedling Grant, dairy-specific health and safety trainings have been provided with effective language access, in several cases for the first time, to mostly, but not exclusively, Spanish speaking farmworkers working on Vermont dairy farms in the Milk with Dignity Program. These trainings, conducted in collaboration with additional partners, have covered topics such as safe chemical handling, safe animal handling and safe machine operation. MDSC is able to then ensure that farms provide the systems and tools that workers need to put the training into action, such as appropriate personal protective equipment for safe chemical handling.

After one of these trainings, Francisco, a farmworker on a Vermont dairy farm who had never received any health or safety training after over six months at his job, observed:

"Creo que las capacitaciones dentro de las granjas es algo fundamental para nosotros los trabajadores ya que eso nos ayuda a trabajar de una mejor manera en beneficio de los ranchos, pero sobre todo en beneficio de nuestra seguridad. Es una herramienta la capacitación continua de los pasos a seguir para trabajar eficazmente y de una manera segura." Which translates to "I believe that receiving trainings on dairy farms is something fundamental for us as workers as they not only help us to work in a better way for the benefit of the farms, but above all because they improve our safety. Continuous training is a tool to help us work effectively and safely."

To monitor respiratory risks and air quality in farmworker housing, the MDSC has obtained IQAir AirVisual air quality monitors. The MDSC has been working with farmworkers to install these monitors in their housing for short periods of time to collect detailed data on indoor air quality. This data (a small, anonymized example of which can be seen below) is still in collection phase, but even the data collected so far have already advanced the understanding of air quality in farmworker housing well beyond previous research.

On Milk with Dignity farms, this data now informs action steps through which farms are making improvements to ensure healthy conditions.

These two steps forward are important expansions of the Milk with Dignity Program’s comprehensive health and safety tools, which incorporate popular education, participatory identification of hazards, hierarchy of controls analysis, and real-time problem solving. Healthier and safer conditions on Vermont’s dairy farms benefit everyone, from workers, to farm owners to dairy buyers and consumers.

Grant Amount $7,500

The Milk with Dignity Standards Council’s mission is to secure the human rights of dairy workers by enforcing labor and housing standards in Migrant Justice's Milk with Dignity Program and elevating working conditions over time through a collaborative process bringing together workers and farmers to create a sustainable Northeast dairy industry. The Milk with Dignity Program uses a new approach to racial and economic justice and to corporate accountability: Worker-Driven Social Responsibility (WSR). The WSR model has been developed and implemented with great success by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and now, Migrant Justice, a worker/member-led organization based in Vermont, has adapted the model for the first time to a new agricultural sector, the Northeast dairy industry. This program is advancing racial and economic justice by lifting wages, protecting economic security, and preventing systemic abuses of the human rights of low-income rural workers of color in Vermont. Our participatory model ensures a voice for historically excluded communities, and Milk with Dignity’s success will inspire and support the growth of this model to other low-wage economic sectors in need of innovative WSR efforts.

The MDSC is charged with assessing compliance with the worker-defined Code of Conduct on farms through two separate, mutually reinforcing monitoring tools. First, MDSC uses on-site in-depth audits of participating farms which include interviews with farm workers and owners as well as additional dairy farm personnel. MDSC’s audits also include walk-throughs of work site areas, review of payroll and other relevant documents, and inspections of farm worker housing. Second, the MDSC runs a 24-7 worker support line for workers on participating farms to call with questions or concerns. The MDSC receives worker complaints through both of these mechanisms and develops Corrective Action Plans for each complaint and non-compliance item that emerge through these two human rights monitoring tools. These Corrective Action Plans serve as a guide for farmers to implement effective changes in their operations. The timelines for compliance with the Code of Conduct may vary depending on each farm’s particular circumstances and the nature of the Code violation in question. Many sections of the Code of Conduct relate to health and safety in the workplace and in worker housing.

Part of the MDSC’s mission to accomplish these goals is through the development and dissemination of best practices in dairy farms for both farmworkers and farmers through mutual engagement in problem solving issues on farms. Particular areas of health and safety in the workplace and in farmworker housing in need of additional attention include respiratory health and adequate safety training. Respiratory hazards arise both in worksites and in worker housing, much of which is adjacent to or directly above worksites. These hazards can arise from chemicals, such as those used for cows’ footbaths, manure, and other exposures. Many workers also express an interest in better health and safety training, as none is currently provided on many dairy farms. Most workers report that their sole training is provided by a current employee who trains them how to do their job’s essential tasks efficiently, but not necessarily safely. Risky practices can then be passed on from worker to worker without any rectification.

The Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC) seeks Seedling Grant funding to enhance the health and safety resources they provide to farm workers and dairy farmers participating in the Milk with Dignity Program, especially with respect to monitoring of respiratory risks and improved overall safety training. Seedling Grant funding would enable them to incorporate improved testing and other resources for respiratory health and safety into their Program, to ensure farms’ access to improved health and safety training, and to improve their dissemination of the MDSC’s Worker Support Line to workers in need of these resources and the many other resources they currently provide.