Series

Very Bad Milk

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ProPublica reporter Melissa Sanchez gives us the dirt on the dairy industry’s exploitation of immigrant labor.
the details
Read ProPublica’s reporting on “America’s Dairyland” here.

Investigative reporters at ProPublica have uncovered rampant exploitation of immigrant dairy farm workers in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. These migrant workers live in substandard housing conditions,...
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Show transcript
00:00
Hey, Gene. You want some milk.
00:01
You know what? Sure.
00:06
Yep. What the fuck is that the dairy industry is hella
00:11
dirty guys. Immigrant farm workers are being treated super unfairly and
00:18
to better understand what's going on.
00:21
We have Melissa Sanchez on the line from Propublica.
00:24
Hi, how are you doing?
00:26
Good, good. And yourself?
00:27
Welcome. Thank you for having me.
00:30
Thank you for coming on.
00:32
So we wanted to ask you,
00:33
how did you first uncover this story?
00:36
Sure. So sort of by chance I was connected with an
00:39
immigrant rights advocate in Michigan who told me about a fire in
00:43
a house for immigrant dairy workers in the western part of that
00:47
state and two men from Southern Mexico died in that fire.
00:51
And what, what really drew me to it and what drew
00:53
this advocate to it was the fact that because dairy workers work
00:57
year round and not,
00:58
not seasonally like migrant crop labor.
01:01
The state's OSHA didn't investigate what happened or if the employer
01:04
could have been responsible and that case sort of sucked me into
01:07
this world of dairy workers and all the cracks that they fall
01:11
through in state and federal protections.
01:14
Melissa, how many immigrants are working in the dairy business?
01:17
So it's, it's hard to say that number.
01:19
But the, a lot of industry groups have said that at
01:23
least half of the workers on dairy farms are immigrants.
01:26
What we've seen in Wisconsin is a lot more than that.
01:28
I'd say it's easily in the tens of thousands nationwide.
01:31
And they're largely from Mexico increasingly from Central America,
01:35
places like Nicaragua and Guatemala.
01:37
And we've, we've heard of cases or met people from Ecuador
01:40
or from Eastern Europe and even from South Africa,
01:43
are they treated worse than farm workers?
01:45
And why is that?
01:46
I think it's, it's all,
01:48
it's all case by case,
01:49
you know, we've talked to workers who feel like they're treated
01:52
well and they're respected by their bosses and others who are called
01:55
racial slurs on a daily basis and who they get hurt when
01:58
they get hurt and they get hurt very often.
02:00
They're just ignored and they're fired and they're evicted from,
02:03
from their homes. I think what makes dairy work different from
02:08
other kinds of farm work?
02:09
What we might normally think of like people in the fields is
02:12
that a lot of these federal and state protections just don't apply
02:15
And so dairy farms,
02:17
dairy farm owners can operate with a lot less scrutiny.
02:20
So OSHA isn't often like in their business,
02:23
like standards that exist for,
02:24
for housing that employers often provide their workers doesn't get checked in
02:28
the same way that it does for other kinds of farm work
02:31
And like I said,
02:32
the people get injured all the time and workers' comp laws don't
02:36
always apply to small farms and a lot of dairy farms are
02:38
small. And what this means is when workers get hurt,
02:41
they're just discarded and they can get fired and evicted and no
02:45
medical treatment. And of course,
02:47
the threat of deportation just hangs over everything.
02:49
Melissa, what can we do to not support these businesses,
02:52
exploiting laborers. I wish,
02:55
I wish I had a good answer because I think about this
02:57
all the time when I'm at the grocery store getting my $8
03:01
a gallon milk for my kids.
03:03
There's labels for, you know,
03:04
whole milk and there's labels for like free range eggs,
03:08
but the same thing doesn't exist for,
03:09
for, for the labor part of,
03:11
of dairy. So,
03:14
so not a whole lot unless you like know a farm and
03:16
you, and you talked to the workers,
03:18
which is unreasonable for most of us.
03:20
I will know that it doesn't have to be this way.
03:23
And in Vermont, there's advocacy,
03:25
there's a group called Migrant Justice that works with,
03:28
with dairy workers and with farmers and they try to get like
03:31
the milk buyers to the table to increase the,
03:34
the price that they'll pay per gallon of milk and pass it
03:37
on to workers. And there's,
03:39
there's standards that come with that housing work conditions,
03:41
et cetera, but that's only in Vermont,
03:43
so big companies like Ben and Jerry's have signed on to that
03:46
But for the rest of us who aren't there,
03:48
there isn't a whole lot.
03:51
Well, thank you so much,
03:52
Melissa. We really appreciate,
03:53
you know, you sharing your insight and where can people
03:57
find you propublica.org/dairy? Perfect.
04:02
Thank you so much for coming on.
04:04
Thanks for having me.
04:05
Thank you. Have a good one.
04:06
Take care.