With a little more down time than usual during what’s left of the December holidays, we thought we’d make a suggestion: If you haven’t heard the latest on “Unfair Dairy,” now is the time. It’s part of the “For a Better World” podcast from Fair World Project, with Anna Canning writing and narrating the series.
“For a Better World,” in its second season, is about fair trade and worker-led movements that fight for equitable food and farming systems. It’s a deep-dive into environmental and social costs of common items — for people who want to understand the impacts of their consumption on each other and the planet.
Season one is about Nestle’s KitKat bar, while the second season that we’re discussing today focuses on the dairy industry that’s been hit hard by the last four decades of corporate consolidation and deregulation. Low prices for farmers, inhumane conditions for workers, exploitation of animals, and emissions that are fueling the climate crisis are all addressed in the podcast, in addition to how “fair trade dairy” appears to be a rebrand of the exploitative status quo.
Read on for a highlight from the audio.
Anna: We're telling sort of two stories that I think we've all seen headlines about how the dairy industry has been in crisis for years. The small scale farmers are going out of business and then there's exploitative conditions for cows and for workers. And honestly, I think the workers sometimes get fewer headlines actually than the cows.
So the origin point is this new fair trade dairy label that's been launched by Fair Trade USA and Chobani, and it's being opposed by the very workers it's supposed to benefit. I think then you have to pause for a minute and consider what that means like, "Well then who is this program actually for?" So I talk with worker organizers, people who have actually milked cows, farmer advocates, and all these people with front row seats to the food system and, in this case, the dairy industry.
Melissa: I think a lot of people look at a company like Chobani as, "Oh, they’re doing something good." Can you talk a little bit more about the specifics of what's happening that workers and human rights organizations are opposed in terms of Chobani?
Anna: Yeah, certainly. And you know, I think there's really important context here that when Fair Trade USA and Chobani announced that they'd be piloting fair trade dairy, it was after workers on farms selling to Chobani had been calling on Chobani to negotiate and support their calls for better working conditions for years. The group Workers’ Center of Central New York, who we talked to in the first couple of episodes, came out with a report several years ago documenting how bad the conditions on those farms were, that people were, and still are, getting injured. They're not getting paid fairly — or they do work and they aren't getting paid for the work they've done. It's a super dangerous job where you work like 12 to 14 hours a day and often don't get days off.
So they brought all of these demands to Chobani's door [as far back as 2017] and then Chobani stopped negotiating with them. And they're still waiting for Chobani to negotiate with them. So instead then, Chobani brought in Fair Trade USA and that program really got launched against the demands of those workers, which is how organizations like mine and 35-ish human rights and labor and food justice groups ended up coming out against this program.
But the label came out in April and it's been more marketing than substance from the start. Like yogurt was on the shelves with a Fair Trade Certified dairy label on starting in April, but the final standard didn't actually even come out until July. And even a few weeks ago, I was talking with worker organizers: There's workers on farms that are participating in the program — that we know are participating in the program because they're in ads from saying they're participating in the program — and those workers don't know anything about what fair trade means and they're continuing to work in dangerous conditions with substandard housing.
So, I think we all know that to make change takes time, but this program is all in, like talking about how it's fair, and meanwhile, the people who are supposed to benefit, they're not getting benefits, nor do they even know that they're supposed to be. And I think that's the crucial bit that has so many organizations opposing it. If you don't know that you have certain rights, how can you even exercise those rights?
Listen in for more.