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Ben & Jerry's condemns child labor in Vermont's dairy industry after New York Times investigation

A photo of people holding up a poster reading Milk With Dignity agreement outside a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop
Terry Allen
/
Courtesy of Migrant Justice
Ben & Jerry's says it stands in "strong opposition to child labor," and is working with the farmworker-led program Milk With Dignity to create better working conditions on dairy farms.

In response toa story from theNew York Times about migrant children working in conditions in violation of labor laws across the country, Ben & Jerry’s has released a statement saying it will take decisive action when it learns of child labor on dairy farms supplying milk for its products.

The article included references of children working on Vermont dairy farms that supply milk to the ice cream company.

(The Biden administration has since announcednew initiatives to investigate child labor violations and improve support for migrant children in the U.S.)

Ben & Jerry’s said they were "deeply concerned by the claims made in this story, and do not tolerate any suppliers who are not adhering to the law.”

Labor laws do permit people under the age of 18 to work, but under specific conditions.On farms, that includes not allowing anyone under 16 to perform hazardous work.

Ben & Jerry's, which is now owned by parent company Unilever, but remains headquartered in Vermont, also said they stood in strong opposition to child labor.

The company pointed out that it joined Milk With Dignity in 2017, a farmworker-led program in which corporations pay farms a premium to adhere to labor and housing standards.

"If ongoing monitoring programs or farmworker hotlines identify incidents of child labor on the farms that flow into the dairy suppliers we purchase from, we will take decisive action in conjunction with our suppliers and the Milk with Dignity Standards Council," Ben & Jerry's said.

More from Vermont Public: Vt.’s housing health & safety system didn’t protect farmworkers, so they created their own program

In the statement, the farmworker advocacy group Migrant Justice said it was proud to work with Ben & Jerry’s.

"Ben & Jerry’s is the first company to join the Milk with Dignity Program," the organization said. "We want all dairy companies to follow their leadership and join Milk with Dignity to bring a new day for human rights in the dairy industry."

Migrant Justice is currently trying to get Hannaford Supermarkets to join the program. The organization has alleged that labor and housing rights violations are taking place on supplier farms for Hannaford Supermarkets.

"Ben & Jerry’s is the first company to join the Milk with Dignity Program ... We want all dairy companies to follow their leadership and join Milk with Dignity to bring a new day for human rights in the dairy industry."
Migrant Justice

Hannaford has said it has investigated those allegations and not found evidence of violations.

While Hannaford was not mentioned in the New York Times investigation, the company does supply milk from Vermont dairy farms.

In a statement this week, Hannaford said it was not aware of any child labor violations at supplier dairy farms, but that it "will not tolerate illegal or inhumane treatment of children or adults who work as part of our supply chain."

The company said any reports of child labor violations would pause its relationship with a supplier, and if the situation couldn't be remediated, they would separate from that supplier.

Hannaford also said it is developing an assessment program for dairy suppliers to make sure its standards are being met.

More from Vermont Public: Farmworker group says Hannaford's ethics help line hasn't fixed living conditions

Vermont Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington told Vermont Public that violations can be reported anonymously through a whistleblower complaint form to Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be investigated.

The state also has a voluntary program that can audit workplaces for safety risks.

Harrington said the Department of Labor is committed to increasing awareness in Vermont about regulations for both workplace safety and child labor.

"But I think a lot of what we do is around awareness, not just for the employer, but for the employee as well ... letting employees know that there are safe ways that one, what they are — the employer — is required to do and require to provide a safe environment," Harrington said. "But also, if they feel like they're at risk, that there's a safe and confidential way to report those concerns to the department that doesn't put them at risk."

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Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.