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Immigrant Workers and Activists Challenge Ben & Jerry's Over Working Conditions

Dairy farmworkers and activists march to Ben & Jerry's main factory in Waterbury, Vt. (Wilson Ring / AP)

Dairy farmworkers and activists march to Ben & Jerry’s main factory in Waterbury, Vt. (Wilson Ring / AP)

Not everyone loves Ben & Jerry these days. On Saturday, over 200 dairy farmworkers and activists in Vermont marched to the company’s factory in Waterbury to demand better pay and living conditions on farms that provide milk to the ice cream maker, the Burlington Free Press reports. Following the march, two Mexican immigrant dairy farmers, Yesenia Hernandez-Ramos, 19, and Esau Peche-Ventura, 26, were arrested on immigration charges.

On Monday, protesters showed support for Hernandez-Ramos and Peche-Ventura by demonstrating outside a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in St. Albans and at a South Burlington correctional facility where Hernandez-Ramos was being held, The Associated Press reports.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, an agent stopped the farmworkers for a routine check near the U.S.-Canada border and “determined the occupants may be illegally present in the U.S. The two occupants were taken to the Border Patrol station for further investigation where they were arrested for immigration violations.”

Migrant Justice, an immigrant rights group, said the pair were arrested while “returning to the farm where they work and live in Franklin County” and explained the reason for the protest of the immigrants’ detainment.

“We were there to denounce the arrest of Esau and Yesenia and to call on ICE to use their discretion to release them back to their families, back to their community so they can continue to live and work in Vermont and continue to raise their voice for their dignity and human rights,” Will Lambek, a Migrant Justice organizer, told the AP.

Ben & Jerry’s takes pride in its social activism and has been vocal in its support for fair immigration policy since Donald Trump became president. After Trump issued his controversial executive order on immigration on Jan. 27 — banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States — Ben & Jerry’s CEO Jostein Solheim wrote an op-ed on the company’s website titled “A Message From Our CEO on Refugees, Migration, and Justice”:

To the business community,

As the leader of a company that makes euphoric ice cream, I sometimes feel a bit more like Willy Wonka than your average CEO. We play with our food. We wear a lot of tie dye. Our board is led by activists, most of whom have been arrested sticking up for something they believe in. And we offer yoga classes weekly at our office.

It goes without saying that everyone wants to live and work in safe and secure communities. These are uncertain times that pose new risks for all of us, both at home and abroad. The problems we face as a free society are complicated and I don’t pretend to have the answers. However, I do know that banning people from predominantly Muslim countries, including refugees from war, is not the path to security. If anything, it undermines America’s moral authority as the leader of the free world. It erodes the U.S.’s reputation as a country committed to liberty and justice for all. And it robs America’s companies, universities, and hospitals from the innovators and job creators that will continue to make its economy the envy of the world.

That’s why the Executive Order barring citizens from predominantly Muslim countries is so threatening to America’s business community and it’s economy at large. Given the president’s experience as a CEO, it was alarming that he would slam the front door of the nation on potential employees and employers who sought legal entry into the U.S. If I indiscriminately stopped hiring people simply because they came from a particular place, I’d be putting my global business at a competitive disadvantage. Yet that’s exactly what this order would do to the United States and its economy.

More meaningfully, the proposed ban is a direct assault on the American values of inclusion and respect. I am proud to join other CEOs—from the entertainment, coffee, automotive, tech and gaming industries, to name a few—in denouncing religious discrimination under any guise. As business leaders we have the right and the responsibility to speak out against injustice and to create a more dynamic and inclusive economy.

I am an optimist at heart. I am encouraged by the growing list of companies and CEOs who’ve spoken out to defend the values on which the United States was founded—values that have made U.S. companies the engines that drive the world’s economy. And while we must remain vigilant against those who seek to hurt us, we must not sacrifice our ideals in the process. Our companies and the global economy depend on it.

Sincerely,

Jostein Solheim

Before the arrests, a Ben & Jerry’s spokesman said the company is committed to reaching a deal on its “Milk with Dignity” program, but workers feel the company has been too slow in negotiations.

According to the AP:

The Milk with Dignity program was created in 2014 by farmworkers and Migrant Justice to ensure that farms provide them fair wages and working conditions and decent housing. In 2015, Ben & Jerry’s agreed to join the program. Since then, the two sides have been negotiating over the details.

On Monday, the company issued a statement about the arrests.

“We are concerned that hard-working, productive members of our community, who contribute to the success of dairy farms in Vermont, would face criminalization,” it said. “We need policy change that serves Vermont’s dairy workers, farmers, and industry as a whole.”

—Posted by Eric Ortiz

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