Greek yogurt boom relies on low-wage Mexican, Guatemalan immigrants in New York

My typical afternoon snack has its roots in New York’s $14 billion a year dairy industry. The state leads the country in Greek yogurt production. A new report by the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) and the Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY) fills me in on the laborers who make possible my daily cup of Chobani. I understand better now why many, many dairy parlor workers say their employers care more about the cows than the well-being of their employees.

Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State is based on interviews with 88 dairy workers from 53 different farms. The project was a collaboration of WCCNY, WJCNY, and researchers with Syracuse and Cornell Universities.

Most of the dairy workers interviewed work in large operations with 500 or more cows, although the workforce is small with typically fewer than 11 non-family employees. Nearly all of the workers interviewed were born in Mexico or Guatemala, 93 percent of them are undocumented laborers, and 73 percent speak little or no English.

Some of what the interviews revealed include:

  • The typical hourly wage is $9 per hour for what is usually a 12-hour work shift.
  • On average, the workers leave the farm once every 11 days. Many feel like they are “locked-up” because of the long work hours, inability to get a driver’s license and fear of immigration enforcement.
  • Two-thirds of the dairy farmworkers suffered one or more injuries on the job, and 68 percent of those injuries require medical attention.
  • 71 percent indicated that their principal safety concern is aggressive cows and bulls.

An attack by a bull nearly caused a dairy worker named Lazaro, 55, to lose an eye. The report explains that the Mexican-born laborer had not been trained to do the dangerous job “pushing cows.” He ended up being flung face forward when a bull charged him.

“His employer helped him up, but instructed him to wait in a chair near the milk tank while he finished the remaining three hours of Lazaro’s shift milking cows. … While he waited, he grabbed one of the cloths that is normally applied to cow udders and applied iodine to his injury.

“Eventually, seeing the significant amount of blood, Lazaro’s employer called one of his family members to take Lazaro to the hospital. He received five stitches for a long cut extending from his eye to his cheek. Though he needed a sixth stitch, the doctors opted not to provide it, as it would have risked damage to his eyeball. He had two broken teeth and two fractured ribs.”

The report describes the substandard housing provided to many of the dairy workers. Typically it is an old farm house or a trailer, but some workers live in “makeshift rooms off the barn or milking parlor.” Many of the workers reported the housing has insect infestations, holes in walls and floors, no locks on their doors and inadequate ventilation.

I can’t help but contrast those living conditions to Chobani’s concern for the cows. Under “The Chobani Way: Ethos,” the company’s founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, says:

“The humane treatment of animals is an ethical and moral imperative.”

Since Chobani has the highest share of the U.S. yogurt market, the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) and the Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY) are looking for the company’s leadership to improve conditions for dairy parlor laborers. The WCCNY and WJCNY are calling on Chobani (and all dairy companies) to implement an independently monitored program to ensure equitable and dignified treatment of workers along the firm’s entire supply chain. They recommend a program such as the Milk with Dignity Program, which was developed by the Justicia Migrante/Migrant Justice, a Worker Center in Vermont. The program’s elements include:

  • Worker-authored codes of conduct adopted by the companies
  • Worker education about their rights under the code of conduct
  • Third-party monitoring to audit and enforce the code of conduct; receive worker complaints and addresses grievances; create improvement plans to address violations; and enforces consequences for non-compliance
  • Legally-binding agreements which stipulate that the program is an enforceable contract under the law

My afternoon snack is often a 5 oz cup of Chobani strawberry or peach yogurt. I sent a message yesterday to the company using their webpage tool.  I said I was a loyal customer urged their leadership to read Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York StateVery soon after, I received the following reply:

Good afternoon Celeste,

Thank you so much for your message. We appreciate and share your concern for all farm workers. We’re taking a closer look at this report and will be happy to follow back up with you.

Again, thank you for reaching out to us.

Have a great day, Colleen

I plan to check back with Colleen in a few weeks.

Do you eat yogurt? Find out more about dairy workers in New York and ways to support them.