Aired On:
March 1, 2022

Momentum is building across the country and across industries for fair livelihoods and decent work for all people – including farmworkers, who have historically been excluded from too many protections. As this movement for fair work spreads, we catch up with Crispin Hernandez of Workers’ Center of Central New York.  Fair Trade USA’s new “fair trade” dairy label has been on Chobani’s Greek yogurt for nearly a year now, but little has changed for farmworkers. Instead, most of them don’t even know what “fair trade” is and haven’t seen the benefits that are getting sold to ethical consumers. But that’s not stopping Crispin and his allies from pushing for better protections for all farmworkers, including overtime pay at 40 hours/week.

Topics covered include:

  • The history behind a 40-hour work week and how farmworkers have been unjustly excluded from those workplace protections.
  • Growing momentum across the United States for farmworkers to be paid overtime after 40 hours of work.
  • Almost one year after “fair trade dairy” appeared on store shelves, farmworkers’ still don’t know what fair trade is or what benefits and rights they should have.
  • What “fair trade committees” are, how they’re described in the press, and what workers actually experience.
  • Chobani’s commitment to charity, instead of changing the conditions that force people to depend on that charity.
  • The real physical consequences of overwork on workers’ health and wellbeing – and how hard it is to get healthcare, even on a farm in the fair trade program.
  • The Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act in New York state and the campaign to lower the overtime threshold to 40 hours for farmworkers.
  • How fear of retaliation continues under the fair trade program, and has far-reaching consequences

Do you work on a farm participating in the “Fair Trade Dairy” program? We want to hear your perspective. Send a message to [email protected] or call (800) 631-9980.


“Milked: Immigrant Farmworkers in New York State” is definitive research into the conditions on dairy farms in New York, presented by Workers’ Center of Central New York to Chobani:

Jacobin Magazine article highlighting the ways the new “fair trade” dairy program is failing workers:

Fair World Project’s report on the “fair trade dairy” label and the standards behind it:

Margaret Gray’s op-ed on why so few farm worker voices were heard at the New York state wage board meeting:

Report highlighting the connections between overtime for farm workers and workplace health and safety:

More on the origins of farmworkers’ exclusion from workplace protections, and the worker-led movements for change:

A Farmer’s Guide to the New York state Department of Labor:

Dana Geffner:
What do you look forward to when you get off work? Clean clothes and a shower? A chance to get off your feet? Seeing your kids, or maybe a partner? There’s the dream of rest and relaxation, but there’s probably the reality too. Laundry to do, errands to run, groceries, doctors’ appointments, and all that.

I’m Dana Geffner, Executive Director of Fair World Project. And I wanted to start off this episode thinking a little bit about what we all do with that time off work. Because that time off has been a hard-won battle that has spanned decades.

< NBC Newsclip >

“The battle cry of workers during the industrial revolution was ‘Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.’ No individual was solely responsible for the passing of the 40-hour week. The struggle began & ended with the workers themselves. In 1937, it was the historic sit-down strike…”

Millitant action by people acting together across industries and for decades finally forced the U.S. government to pass laws establishing a 40-hour work week with time and a half pay for any additional hours worked. For most workers.

As we pick back up with our Unfair Dairy series, we’re going to be talking about some of the people who have been left out of that hard-won law since the start: Farmworkers.

As far back as the 1860s, we have been saying that 12-14 hour days, 6 days a week is too much for a human to work.  But even now, people working in barns and fields across the U.S. regularly work that kind of schedule. And for no extra pay. But from California to New York State, there’s momentum building to change that, and to rewrite the old unjust laws that have excluded the people who grow our food for far too long.

In this episode, Fair World Project’s Anna Canning is following up with Crispin Hernandez of the Workers’ Center of Central New York.  Anna spoke to Crispin for the first two episodes of our Unfair Dairy series. 

In this episode, they’ll be catching up on what is happening in the dairy barns of New York. Now that Chobani’s “Fair Trade Dairy” has been on the shelf for nine months, what does that fair trade label mean for workers in practice?

Anna Canning:
Hi, it’s Anna. I’m back. Since I last recorded a conversation with Crispin Hernandez, it feels like a lot has happened. There is of course the endless pandemic. It’s upending all of our routines.

And on all sides, there are stories of the Great Resignation, spelled out with capital letters like it marks a new era of discontent. More and more people are quitting, fed up with the ways they are treated as expendable in their jobs. This fall, Striketober gave way to Strikesgiving as wave on wave of unionized workers walked off the job, demanding fair pay and decent working conditions.  The cute names died off with #Strikesmas, but the momentum continues. Burned out, beaten down, under protected and underpaid, people are joining together and demanding dignity on the job.

At the beginning of this series, I talked to Crispin about how his organizing with allies had upended old, unjust laws that excluded farmworkers from too many workplace protections. And how they’d won new laws, granting farmworkers organizing protections, minimum wage and overtime pay.

Now this fall, the first farmworkers in the state of New York signed a union contract. Workers at Pindar Vineyard now have a unified voice to protect their rights as they pick grapes on Long Island. The struggles we spoke of are bearing real fruit and changing people’s daily lives in their workplaces.

Amidst all that, I come back to Crispin. In my interview with him today, you’ll hear his words spoken in English by an actor.

We’ve been in touch throughout the summer and fall. I’ve been checking in to see how the Workers Center of Central New York’s campaigns for justice for dairy farm workers are developing– and how the new fair trade dairy standard is changing conditions on farms.

When we last talked, Crispin told us where things stood in the workers’ campaign on Chobani:

< For a Better World Season 2 Episode 2 audio clip >

“You know, we really wanted to make sure that they were able to hear those voices, demanding that they recognize that not just workers’ voices, but their voice and their vote in what we are living through and the conditions that we’re experiencing. And we want them to do the right thing. And up until this point, they haven’t. They haven’t been doing the right thing.”

“So, since you had that big meeting, has Chobani continued to negotiate with workers?”

“Yeah, ya know, that’s a great question. Thank you for asking that. And, you know, we haven’t met again since then.”

Anna Canning:
I started by asking Crispin the same question again. And once again, the answer was no. Since that meeting in 2019, Chobani still has not met with workers. There’s a steady refrain to what Crispin says:

Crispin Hernandez:
So what we want is for Chobani to take responsibility to protect the workers.  Why? Because, well there are many reasons. For example, the living conditions are bad. There are cockroaches and bedbugs. But it is not just workers’ salaries or their living conditions – but in the health and security of their workplace. Because something very important that people should know is that the people who work in agriculture, it’s very dangerous work dealing with the animals and everyday they’re faced with risks. So that’s the most important thing that we want Chobani to make right and that they could do now.

It’s something that since we sat down with Chobani in 2017, where we showed them the Milked report and the consequences that the workers face every day. And that’s what we want to say to Chobani, to the public, also to the employers– to take the responsibility to protect the workers.

Anna Canning:
Instead of negotiating directly, as Crispin and those organizing with the Workers Center of Central New York were calling for, Chobani partnered with Fair Trade USA to launch a “fair trade dairy” program. When we last heard from Crispin, yogurt with the fair trade label was just newly on the shelf. Here’s what he had to say about the program back then:

< For a Better World Season 2 Episode 2 audio clip >

“I have spoken with them and you know what? They don’t even know what fair trade actually is. Those workers who were working on a lot of those farms that are going to be part of that certification program. And I remember one ranch, I went and I spoke with them and they have no idea. And so that’s really wrong on the part of Chobani, not including workers’ voices is wrong.”

Anna Canning:
And today, that fair trade yogurt has been on the shelf for nine months. And here’s what Crispin’s hearing from workers now:

Crispin Hernandez:
Well, when I’ve talked to the workers personally what they tell me is that many are confused. They don’t understand what fair trade means. Why? Because what Chobani is doing is that, in the first place, they don’t explain well what fair trade is.

And in the second place, workers are told they are supposed to form a “fair trade committee.” But the workers don’t know how to and they don’t give them this information to form a committee.

Anna Canning:
This “fair trade committee” that Crispin is talking about is a key part of fair trade certification & there’s a lot of guidelines around just how it’s supposed to work.

The certifier Fair Trade USA describes the purpose of the committee in their standards:

“One way that a standard can drive collective empowerment is through establishing groups that foster communication and collaboration on important issues such as health and safety, community investments or working conditions.

…The Fair Trade Committee’s main responsibility is to manage the use of the Fair Trade Premium, which is one of the unique aspects of the Fair Trade model. The Fair Trade Premium is an extra sum paid to workers and small producers above the cost of the Fair Trade product.

…In Fair Trade, the workers and producers decide together as Premium Participants how the Fair Trade Premium will be used to meet their individual and collective needs, as well as the needs of their communities and environment. They elect a Fair Trade Committee that is responsible for managing, investing, and spending the Fair Trade Premium on behalf of the workers and producers, as well as tracking and informing them about Premium projects and Premium accounting.”

These Fair Trade Committees are key to the claims that Fair Trade USA makes that they empower workers.

But what Crispin is hearing from workers doesn’t sound very empowering.

Crispin Hernandez:
Another thing we’ve heard is that on the farm I mentioned where the fair trade program has been implemented, there are already people that are part of the committee. But my understanding is that Chobani and managers selected those people.

But really, what’s happening is that in general they don’t explain to the workers and many are confused and don’t even understand what fair trade is.

Anna Canning:
For people to build power, first they have to know what they’re participating in, and what their rights are.

And the part where Chobani and managers selected the people? That’s absolutely not how Fair Trade USA is presenting it in the media.

In a recent article in Jacobin magazine, Fair Trade USA’s Producer Services Manager, Jamie Padilla said of the Fair Trade Committees, “The members are democratically elected by all workers. It’s a huge responsibility and, honestly, one of the most empowering things I’ve seen.”

That’s not what Crispin’s hearing from workers however.

And it’s actually also a bit of a misrepresentation of how the process actually works. At least on paper, in the standards. Initially, the “certificate holder” helps to set up these fair trade committees, guiding their structure to ensure that they’re properly representative of the people they are supposed to benefit. There’s a handy little flow chart in the standards to show how it’s supposed to go. By year one, or before premium money has been spent, “premium participants,” which means workers in this case, are supposed to have done the following: One, understand fair trade, two, elect their Fair Trade Committee, and then write and approve a constitution for that committee. Then, they’re supposed to conduct a “Needs Assessment” and communicate those results. From what Crispin’s telling me, it still sounds like things are right at about step 1, or more like step 0, since workers still don’t know what fair trade is. Meanwhile, people buying “fair trade dairy” have been sold a story of worker empowerment since about April of last year.

Crispin Hernandez:
And I’m going to add a little bit here. The workers I talked to told me that they give them a paper that they have to sign to say they agree with what Chobani is doing. But in reality, many don’t understand it but many go along and sign because they  think their other coworkers have already signed it. And because what Chobani has said is that if you agree, sign this paper, and what this paper means is that they’re going to give them some resources. For example at the end of last year, they gave them a card for $500 to buy the things they need like boots or their food.

Anna Canning:
This is a serious thing that Crispin’s telling me. From his accounting, the workers he’s talking to understand that they need to sign a paper, sort of a loyalty agreement, and then they’ll get money. Is this a fair trade premium payout? Encouragement to stay quiet and stay away from organizers like Crispin?  Since the workers don’t even know what fair trade is, it’s really hard to get a clear picture.

But Crispin is plenty clear: even if workers need the money, getting a one-time $500 gift card is not the same as dignified work and living conditions.

Crispin Hernandez:
But I want to point out something very important about what I just mentioned. This isn’t real change. For example, I had the opportunity to visit workers in their housing that the farmers provide and there are still cockroaches. And the housing they live in, it’s not a real house.

It’s not just about cockroaches though. The most important thing is the conditions in their workplace, what they deal with every day. In the workplace, there are many things that aren’t good and many things that should be fixed to make sure accidents aren’t happening, and also to address the treatment of the animals. Chobani needs to protect the workers who are working 365 days a year so Chobani can have milk processed every day.

Another of the things that Chobani is doing is offering bottles of water to the workers. And we’ve heard that they’ve donated to schools. But all of this is just charity, it helps them reduce their taxes. But this isn’t the right thing. We believe that Chobani needs to do the right thing and really listen to all the workers in their supply chain. Not just in the dairy industry but on other farms that, for example, Chobani buys apples, grapes, strawberries from.

So what we’re asking Chobani is to listen to us. In 2017, we sat down with them at the table and brought them a memorandum: what we want is that they recognize all the workers in their supply chain.

We want the people who are consuming Chobani’s products to know this is what is happening with Chobani and what we’re asking is for justice for the workers.

Anna Canning:
Since we started releasing episodes, I’ve gotten questions from people who have listened and been surprised at what they’ve heard. Chobani has a reputation for being a good company, they talk about their hiring practices, the stock shares to employees. But what’s clear is that those considerations don’t make it down the supply chain to farmworkers.

And Chobani’s charitable giving is well-known. They’ve donated yogurt to hurricane victims and to refugees. They’ve given money to community groups. And over the holidays, Chobani’s CEO teamed up with Ivanka Trump to do a photoshoot handing out free food boxes. But, instead of charity, why not change the conditions that force people to depend on that charity? Last year Chobani filed an initial public offering. The company was valued at $10 billion dollars – that’s billions of dollars of value created on the backs of dairy farm workers. And meanwhile, those farmworkers are living in substandard housing and working 60+ hours per week just to make ends meet. That’s what’s at the heart of the workers’ calls for justice.

Crispin Hernandez:
To add other things, Chobani is investing more money. And it’s something very unfair for us workers. And they’re announcing it publicly and don’t want to do it fairly. So what we’re asking is that Chobani does the right thing. We aren’t asking that they do much, just that they give justice and equality to all the workers.

Anna Canning:
Crispin and the Workers’ Center of Central New York have been calling for that justice for years now – it’s been nearly five years since they published their “Milked” report and delivered it to Chobani’s door. And they continue to call for real change – justice that would mean fair livelihoods for the people who milk the cows, not just charity food boxes. Not just fair trade marketing, but dignified work, decent hours and decent living conditions.

Over the past year, I’ve talked regularly to Crispin and others that he organizes with about what they’re hearing from the people who work in Chobani’s supply chain. And, as we follow the story of this fair trade program that was developed without the involvement of those most impacted, I’ve wanted to speak directly to those workers too. Of course, there’s a global pandemic going on. I can’t just pick up and follow Crispin to visit the farmyards of New York.

But it’s also more complicated than that. I ask Crispin why it’s been so hard to get workers on dairy farms to speak publicly about their experiences in the fair trade program.

Crispin Hernandez:
In the first place, many of the workers don’t understand what this fair trade program means. And then there are many other barriers as well. In the first place, it’s their legal status. And the other thing is that many workers have fear because the managers intimidate them. I always say that the workers have a voice, but many times the managers get in the way of this.

In the first place they don’t tell them their rights. In second place, they intimidate them. For example, they tell workers, you won’t get better salary, better housing –  all of this is intimidation and is what the workers live with. But in general, the workers that are working now in the farms where they want to implement the fair trade program, these are the barriers that they’re facing. And if the managers are doing this, we could imagine what Chobani is doing. That they’re not doing the right thing and explaining what fair trade is.

Anna Canning:
Crispin returns to a theme that runs through our conversation. They have done the research. They’ve assembled it into a report that represents their demands, and their collective voice. Meanwhile, this “fair trade” program is rolling out without the engagement of the people who are most aware of their rights as workers and most engaged in the struggle to defend those rights.

Crispin Hernandez:
If Chobani really wants to make a change, then they should contact us, the organizations that are working to educate the workers. And why do I say this? Because now we are living in difficult times and the workers – there are some that have work and some that don’t and are facing difficult situations. Not just the pandemic, but also there are workers who are sick and the managers make the workers come to work.

And not only with Covid,  but there are many workers who have worked in this industry for years and many get sick with the typical flu or other sicknesses and can’t go get treatment at the hospital. Why are they falling sick? In the first place, because they don’t have medical insurance. In the second place, they don’t even have time to get care and so when they get sick, they get very sick.

Another thing that happens is that many workers that work in the agriculture industry, and specifically in the dairy industry, get hurt and the managers don’t want to do the right thing to give the workers compensation. So what we’re doing is supporting the workers so that they can obtain this because it’s a basic right we deserve. But why don’t they receive this? Because many don’t know their rights, and the managers don’t want to help them. So this is the root of the problem.

Anna Canning:
I want to pause for a moment here. We started out this episode talking about the value of rest, that precious time off work to tend to the needs of our lives. Without that time off to get treatment or to recuperate, things can snowball.

Several months ago, I’d emailed Crispin about something else. He sent me back a message that drove home just how dire the consequences of overwork and lack of knowledge about their rights can be for workers. He tells that story now:

Crispin Hernandez:
A few months ago, one of the workers suddenly got sick and Chobani – or the manager on the farm where they buy the milk – didn’t take the responsibility to get the worker taken care of at the hospital. So then the worker had to find care on his own. Thank goodness he was finally able to receive care, but now it has been months and he’s still in the hospital in a coma. This worker was working on a farm where Chobani buys their milk. And it’s a farm where Chobani has already implemented the fair trade program.

Why do I say “was working” in the past tense? Because he’s in a coma right now, not working. And he’s recovering now, but he’s in a coma.

Anna Canning:
That weekend when I got the email from Crispin, I tried to figure out what I could do to be useful from across the country. Part of my *job* is reading, understanding, and commenting on fair trade standards. So I went to those standards to see how the fair trade program could help in the situation. It’s my job to understand those standards. But even I was confused.

The standards are 129 pages long. Rows of guidelines laid out in a table with columns and abbreviations noting where they apply and after how long. And that doesn’t even include the extra pdfs of guidance that exist on the website.

Oh, and about that website. Part of the reason that I’m the one on the site is because that navigation is all in English. Go to the Fair Trade USA homepage & there’s plenty of ways to find out how to buy a fair trade product, or how to sign up to get your business certified. But know your rights? No such tab. Report an issue? That’s buried somewhere at the bottom of a page and doesn’t even actually show up if you’re not on a desktop computer. I just happen to have the standards bookmarked on my computer. And so, that brings us to actually trying to understand how this fair trade program could help this hospitalized worker.

What rights does a person have in this scenario? What was supposed to happen? Well, in the first place, that depends on how many people work on this farm with him. If he works on a large farm with 25 or more permanent workers, then there are some standards that should apply. If he’s on a farm with 5 or fewer workers, then there are no required standards. And in the middle, well, those standards are optional to be implemented over time; they’re worth 5 “progress points.” OK, so the first step is to find out how many co-workers a person in a coma has.

And, only then do we get to the actual standard that may or may not apply. The standard says that “The intention of the criterion is that employers ensure workers are provided and do not pay for acute medical care for any workplace injuries and illnesses, and do not lose wages during treatment.” But that? That’s basically also New York law. According to the Farmers’ Guide to Labor Law put out by the New York State Department of Labor, employers are responsible for providing workers’ compensation insurance to cover for workplace injuries. My research into the minutiae of the situation went on.

But here’s the real point. And once again, it goes back to the findings of the “Milked” report. In their surveys of dairy farm workers, the Worker’s Center of Central New York found that people who got sick or injured at work faced all sorts of obstacles to getting the support they need. Quoting from the report:

[Almost 40 percent of those injured] reported that they needed workers’ compensation. But only a third of those who needed it actually applied, either because they didn’t know it was an option given their undocumented status, or because they feared employer reprisal. Several workers reported that they weren’t even permitted days off to recuperate from their injuries. One worker even said that the manager and farm owner told him that he did not have the right to compensation, and another worker reported that his manager tried to minimize his injury and told him that workers’ compensation wasn’t necessary.

Existing laws have long failed to provide meaningful protections for farm workers. But it’s clear that the fair trade program isn’t filling that gap.

The fair trade program hasn’t helped with fear of retaliation or consequences. We know that because workers are afraid to speak out publicly about their experiences. But even if they weren’t afraid, many don’t even know they’re involved in the fair trade programs to begin with, not to mention not knowing what sort of rights or benefits that’s supposed to bring. Fair Trade USA’s work with Chobani to roll out a “fair trade dairy” program has done little to support workers. But Crispin and his fellow organizers aren’t waiting for them to make change.

Instead, they are continuing to build on their historic wins. Back in Episode 1, we described how Crispin and his allies won their case, overturning the Jim Crow era exemption that left farmworkers out of basic workplace protections for organizing. Those exemptions for organizing, for minimum wages, and overtime pay were, in the words of one researcher, “well-known to be a race-neutral cover for maintaining the domination of white supremacy in the South and excluding Black workers from labor law’s protection.”

After those laws were declared unconstitutional in New York State, the legislature also passed a groundbreaking set of laws, the Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act. Farmworkers could be eligible for overtime pay – something they currently don’t get in most states in the U.S. That means that when workers hustle to work the 12-14 hour shifts that Crispin has described, working regularly with just one day off – there’s no point at 40 hours in a week where they start earning more money, the way workers in most industries do.

When the new laws went into effect, the New York State legislators set the overtime rules for farmworkers at 60 hours per week. And they established a board to look into the question of reducing the requirement to 40 hours. The week I spoke to Crispin, the wage board was taking public comment on the question of lowering the overtime threshold for workers to 40 hours per week. I asked Crispin to tell me more about the current status of the campaign.

Crispin Hernandez:
We are in direct communication with the workers and, in the first place, we want to ask Chobani to recognize the right to unionize of all the workers in their supply chain. This is our clear message to Chobani. And what’s happening now in New York state is something very historic. And we want Chobani to support all agricultural workers in New York state, especially those who are in their supply chain. What about overtime? Us workers want overtime after 40 hours of work. It’s what we’re asking the governor, the senators, and assemblies – they have the responsibility to protect all agricultural workers just like other workers in other industries. What we’re asking for is equality.

Yesterday, we had a hearing and the employers are saying that if we decrease the overtime requirement, the economy will go down. This is totally a lie. This is what they said before when they passed New York’s Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act. Now it’s the law and we’re living through a very intense pandemic and the workers continue working every day.

Anna Canning:
Tensions around this hearing are running high. On the one side, farm employers are saying that reducing the threshold for overtime pay will drive them out of business and have dire consequences for the whole economy. And on the other side, worker advocates are calling for overtime pay at 40 hours, framing the question as a matter of fairness and equality for all working people.

Crispin Hernandez:
I want to add that what was happening at the hearing was that many workers couldn’t be there because they’re working. And many don’t want to talk out of fear of retaliation by managers. And this is one of the important things.

Also, last night at the hearing, I heard people say that if they lower the overtime, that workers are going to go to other states. This is totally a lie. What we want is for the workers to work less and earn the same. Take more time with their families, spend time with their kids, send them to school, to have time to get medical care, and take time for their health. This is very important in agricultural work. It’s important work, but it’s dangerous work, not just on dairy farms but for all farmworkers. It’s very repetitive work and tiring. 

There are many reasons we want this, as I mentioned, but the most important thing here is our health. Because many workers who work more than 60 hours, many have to return to their home country – not only from Central America but also from other countries– and when they go, they return sick.

So this is what we want the senators, assemblies, and the wage board to understand. This is the real change we’re asking for.

It’s now been more than 80 years since farmworkers were left out of workplace protections for others. The new law was passed in 2020 and now it’s 2022 and we want a real change now. Now is the time to do it, to recognize us and protect us workers.

Anna Canning:
The arguments brought before the New York Wage Board closely reflect the arguments that have been made across the U.S. as a wave of farmworker organizing has won overtime protections for people working in the fields and barns of big agricultural states like California and Washington. Here in my home state of Oregon, farmworker and food justice organizations are actively campaigning for similar overtime rules. In a recent white paper, their campaign compiled the grim data. People working lots of overtime have a 65% “higher injury hazard rate,” to use the terminology of the report. Other studies cited show higher rates of disease – in short, the data backs up what Crispin is saying. 

Meanwhile, across the country, similar threats are being made: paying farmworkers overtime for their long hours will force farmers out of business because they won’t be able to make ends meet. If costs increase, companies will just find other places to buy and seek out new ingredients from places with lower wages.

And all these arguments highlight the ways that our food system has been built on underpaid and overexploited labor for far too long. Yet, when these debates pit farmers against workers, time and again, it’s the big brands and processors who get off free. And that’s why, as we talk, Crispin keeps coming back to the workers’ demands of Chobani.

Crispin Hernandez:
And why are we asking Chobani this? Because Chobani has the power to change this because Chobani buys the products. That’s to say that Chobani has the power to pay more for their milk and then farmers can give a fair wage to us workers after 40 hours of work.

It’s an injustice that they say that we are essential workers but don’t recognize us. It doesn’t matter that it’s cold outside now. The workers are out there working. Thanks to the workers, there is food on our tables now every day. And thanks to the workers, the companies are growing.

Anna Canning:
I reached out to Chobani and to Fair Trade USA to see if they had anything to say about farmworkers in Chobani’s supply chains calling for lowering the threshold for paid overtime to 40 hours. Fair Trade USA’s CEO Paul Rice sent a short note saying “Thank you for the opportunity to comment. We are going to wait until a decision is rendered to make a comment.” It’s useful to note that when they rolled out the “fair trade dairy” standard, Fair Trade USA actually increased the standard work week to 60 hours/ week for farmworkers in the U.S. As of this recording, Chobani has yet to provide a comment.

I asked Crispin how people listening can support their campaign, and dairy farmworkers’ calls for justice.

Crispin Hernandez:
Good question. In the first place, us workers are asking for justice. Why are we asking for the consumers to support us? Because they are consuming the products without knowing about the injustices and exploitation happening in Chobani’s supply chains. Chobani has added the fair trade label and increased the price, but this is unjust. The companies only want more investment, but not to improve the conditions of the workers. That’s what we’re asking the public.

And if you have economic resources, please contact us and we can see how we could use them. Why am I saying economic resources? It’s because we need resources to help support the workers continue their work so that Chobani will listen to what we’re asking. It’s very important because without them, Chobani isn’t going to do anything. And really we want the support of the public and other organizations. Not just in New York either. What Chobani is doing is unjust at the national level.

Anna Canning:
The Spanish word for “fair trade” is “comercio justo” and as we speak, Crispin keeps coming back to how what Chobani has done is “injusto,”unjust. In every way the opposite of what is fair.

Crispin Hernandez:
It is unjust because when we sat down at the table with them in 2017, we had done our research. We delivered a report to Chobani showing them what was happening in their supply chains and offering solutions.

Instead, they created a program around fair trade and didn’t include us workers. This has created a controversy, not just with the workers but also with the public. And this is unjust because we have asked something very clear of Chobani and they’re not doing it because they don’t want to listen to us. And because of this, we’re asking the support of the public. This is the real change. Help the workers.

Now Chobani is increasing their prices and the people don’t know. Or maybe they think what they put on social media looks good, but really they’re not doing the right thing. And for us it’s very important that the public knows where the food that they eat every day comes from. And this is not just about us and Chobani, but I hope that the public knows where all the products they eat come from and support the workers who make them, not just in New York but in all communities, in the U.S. and in other countries. 

There are many workers, and that is the real change: to give voice and power to the workers so they can exercise their rights and so that companies like Chobani will recognize their rights. So we just want to thank the people who are going to support us and thank you for this opportunity. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Anna Canning:
It’s been nearly five years since Crispin and his allies marched to Chobani’s café and delivered them a copy of the painstakingly researched “Milked” report. In that report, there’s a list of recommendations and calls to action from workers to improve their lives and livelihoods. Crispin, the Workers’ Center and their allies have been making steady progress on those demands, organizing to win new laws and support workers. But Chobani continues to lag. Instead of meeting with workers, they’ve rolled out a “fair trade” label, staged photo ops with food banks and political figureheads. But they’ve continued to ignore workers’ central demands for justice.

I’ve been a skeptic of Fair Trade USA’s dairy program since it first launched. We wrote an entire report on the ways that the standard is inadequate to protect workers’ rights – check the show notes for a link to that Label Before Labor report. In the report, we critique the ways that Fair Trade USA puts marketing first, with “fair trade dairy” on the shelves before the final standard was made public. And now, that Chobani yogurt has been on the shelves for nearly a year with a fair trade label – and the workers it claims to benefit don’t even know what fair trade is. Instead, too many continue to live in inadequate housing, housing with cockroaches and bed bugs.

Crispin spoke of workers having to sign papers saying that they agree with Chobani in order to get extra money. That certainly doesn’t sound like the worker empowerment that is sold as part of the fair trade package. Instead of supporting workers building their power, workers on fair trade farms remain afraid to speak publicly. Throughout our conversation, Crispin mentions the fear of retaliation as an obstacle for workers – and that fear is real. Back in Episode 1, he spoke of getting fired from his job tending cows for standing up for his rights. And he’s not alone. Fear of retaliation undermines farmworkers’ organizing, as well as reporting workplace injuries and dangerous conditions.

In a recent op-ed on the hearings on farmworker overtime, professor Margaret Gray wrote about why so few farmworkers’ voices were heard in those hearings:

< Audio clip of quotation >

“My two decades of research, including hundreds of conversations with New York farm laborers, have consistently shown… Workers are made to understand that if they do not cause any trouble, they can keep their jobs.

Not causing trouble means not complaining about unsanitary housing or dangerous working conditions, or when their paycheck is less than what it should be.

Not causing trouble certainly does not mean testifying about lowering the overtime threshold.”

Anna Canning:
The result of that fear of retaliation is the absence of farmworkers’ voices, or the selective inclusion of those who understand the need to toe the management line. The op-ed goes on to conclude what so much research has shown: organized workers have the power to speak to their conditions. When workers stand together, they create the conditions to make powerful change.

But that power comes from organizing and knowing their rights. Just calling something “fair” doesn’t make it so. 

I’m deeply disappointed that both Fair Trade USA and Chobani have sidestepped the opportunity to support farmworkers’ calls for overtime pay. When they launched their fair trade dairy program, many of us were critical that its focus on “Worker Wellbeing” didn’t go far enough to ensure workers’ rights. But now, given the chance to support a basic foundation of workers’ wellbeing – extra compensation for extra long days and the time to rest –  they are refusing to take a stand.

Dana Geffner:
Throughout this series, we’ve traced the path of this new “fair trade dairy” label from Fair Trade USA that has been developed and piloted with Chobani. We’ve talked about the many ways that it falls short of meaningful change – instead, just rebranding the exploitative status quo as ethical.

This episode, we heard from Crispin how it’s failing to make good on its most basic claims. And, when given the opportunity to speak in support of the overtime protections that workers are organizing to win, both Fair Trade USA and Chobani declined.

Our food system is built on centuries of unpaid and underpaid labor. Labor laws in the U.S. have helped to codify that legacy. When Crispin and allies won their lawsuit that helped upend some of those unjust laws in New York state, the court explicitly declared the exemption for farmworkers unconstitutional, because it violated their rights to equal protection under the law.

Here’s the thing: too much of the debate on whether or not to grant farmworkers overtime pay focuses on whether or not farmers can afford it. Instead, it’s time to refocus the question. Why are we still asking farmworkers to bear the weight of our food system – and the profits of so many others – on their shoulders? It’s high time for brands to step up and take responsibility for the wages of the people in their supply chains. And it’s high time that certifiers like Fair Trade USA stop providing marketing cover for those who’d rather dodge accountability.

You’ve been listening to For a Better World, a podcast by Fair World Project. If you enjoyed the show, make sure to subscribe, review, and share with your friends. Head to our website to sign up for our newsletter – it’s the best way to stay in the loop with our work and take action to support the movements you hear about on this show.

Fair World Project is a non profit organization, and we rely on donations to keep our work going. If you like what you heard or learned something new, consider becoming a monthly donor. Your contribution will help us continue to bring you stories from around the globe. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to stay up to date between episodes.

For a Better World is made possible by our small but mighty team. Our show is edited by Joshua Moore, Katie Gardner is our producer, Anna Canning is our script writer, our storytellers are Ryan Zinn and Anna Canning, our music was composed by Mark Robertson, Crispin’s words are read by Eduardo Ruales, and I’m your host and executive director of Fair World Project Dana Geffner. Thank you for listening!

Stay Up to Date with New Episodes

Join host and Executive Director of Fair World Project, Dana Geffner, on the new podcast For a Better World. Subscribe now to get new episodes automatically delivered to your podcast app of choice.

For a Better World is a podcast by Fair World Project, a nonprofit organization. Support the show by donating today.