JURIST staffer Pitasanna Shanmugathas attended the rally described in this dispatch.
On Saturday, over 100 individuals assembled in Portland, Maine, to show their solidarity with the rights of migrant workers. The Milk with Dignity campaign, advocating for farm workers in New England, called upon Hannaford Supermarkets, an American retail chain, to take action. The objective of the campaign was to tackle labor and housing conditions on dairy farms, specifically those in Maine that supply milk to Hannaford’s store brand. The organizers are urging Hannaford to sign a farmworker-authored code of conduct that sets standards to promote dignified working conditions and fair treatment for farmworkers in dairy supply chains, including compliance with labor laws, ensuring health and safety, and providing suitable housing and fair compensation. While the campaign has gained support from other companies, Hannaford has thus far refused to sign the code of conduct.
This campaign is led by Vermont-based farm worker organization Migrant Justice and was founded following the death of Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz in 2009, who lost his life in a mechanized gutter scraper incident on a dairy farm in Vermont. Notably, the campaign has made significant progress by gaining the commitment of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream which signed the code of conduct in 2017.
Police officers and security guards surrounded the perimeter of the Hannaford store in South Portland, where protestors on Saturday were demonstrating. Migrant Justice activist Marita Canedo stood before a heavy police and security presence passionately reading a series of written complaints from farm workers. These powerful grievances highlighted issues like underage workers handling chemicals without protective gear, unsanitary and unsafe housing conditions on farms, and the relentless exploitation of injured workers. One particular account from a farmworker described a life-and-death situation; the complainant stated that “the supervisor on the farm where my family and I worked was a very violent man. He would force us to work extra hours, didn’t allow us to take food breaks, and constantly insulted us. My mother and I had to work eleven hours a day. Our housing had pest infestations, and my employer didn’t care. One day the supervisor was drinking…he [came] into our room…he was carrying a machete and started to threaten us. He wanted to hurt my mother. I decided to call the police. The supervisor denied everything to the police. My boss came to see what was happening, she got upset with us, [and] took the supervisor’s side. She fired us.” After reading the complaints to the public, activists handed the written complaints to a security official demanding that it be seen by Hannaford’s President, Michael Vail.
Maine State Representative Thom Harnett has acknowledged that many of the concerns raised by the farm workers are legal under Maine law. Farmworkers are not considered employees and lack the right to organize without risking termination.
In response to Saturday’s protest, Hannaford said that it acknowledges the importance of farmworkers in its food systems. However, the company stated that these issues go beyond its direct control or influence. While Hannaford supermarkets have not yet signed the farmworker-authored code of conduct, the organizers and supporters remain committed to the cause.