For Chobani’s Fair Trade Certification to Live Up to Its Promises, We’ll Need Organized Labor

Greek yogurt juggernaut Chobani touts its fair trade certification as proof that it treats its workers well. But fair trade certification glosses over the fundamentally unequal and exploitative power dynamics of bosses over workers, at Chobani and workplaces everywhere.

Members of the newly formed Local 338, RWDSU/UFCW, at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, New York. (Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW)

In May 2021, the New York–based yogurt giant, Chobani, announced its new fair trade certification for dairy farms through Fair Trade USA (FTUSA). Thus far, seven of the state’s farms have agreed to recognize the new accreditation. Elsewhere in New York, farmworkers on the Long Island Pindar Vineyards made history by officially joining a union: Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers (RWDSU/UFCW), under the banner of Agricultural Workers United.

Farmworkers across the country experience poor working conditions, and dairy work is particularly dangerous. In 2015, there were over 6,700 injuries on US dairy farms. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the on-the-job fatality rate in agriculture was nearly seven times the national average.

Both the Chobani FTUSA certification and the Agricultural Workers United union organizing efforts have the labor conditions of workers in mind, but the two organizations are working within very different frameworks. FTUSA recognizes farmworkers as one group among many stakeholders — farmers, dairy cooperatives, dairy brands, and other supply chain actors. By contrast, farmworkers are the sole focus of Local 338’s campaign — the bargaining unit is composed of the workers themselves.

When Chobani announced its new certification, environmentalists and animal rights activists celebrated. However, the announcement was not without its detractors. Critics, mostly farmworker advocates, have argued that the certification is a PR scheme and that fair trade standards are too weak to serve workers.

Chobani Marketing Power

Chobani and FTUSA have the name recognition and financing that unions lack. They have leveraged their brand names to spearhead marketing campaigns that champion their certification standards.

Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who prioritized hiring refugees, founded Chobani in 2007. In 2016, he gave his factory employees shares of the multibillion-dollar company, quickly making him America’s most beloved CEO.

Pundits have credited Chobani, which is headquartered in the northern tier of upstate New York, for the region’s economic boom. In 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo went so far as to sign a bill declaring yogurt the official New York State snack.

These efforts, along with Greek yogurt’s praised health benefits, have contributed to consumers’ feel-good sense about Chobani and made it the number-one-selling yogurt brand in America. Ulukaya’s net worth is estimated to be over $2 billion.

In November 2021, Chobani announced its intent to go public through an Initial Public Offering (IPO). According to Investopedia, the timing of Chobani’s IPO and the FTUSA certification coincide with “a surge in investor interest in health-focused and socially responsible companies.”

The growth of the yogurt industry in New York State — and, in particular, Greek yogurt, which requires three times as much milk as regular yogurt — has intensified production practices on dairy farms. Farmers and workers report feeling pressure to increase production in response to this surge in demand.

Fatalities on New York dairy farms rose after Chobani began producing yogurt in 2007, with deaths peaking in 2014. In that same year, the Albany Times Union published an article questioning whether the surge in production was causing an increase in work-related fatalities. A few months later, on November 9, 2014, Marco Antonio Ortiz Perez, a thirty-one-year-old worker from Mexico, died at the small dairy farm that he worked at in Penn Yan, New York, after falling into the auger of a grain silo.

At the time, a New York State Department of Health employee expressed to us their concern that work speedups were compromising safety as farmers tried to meet the demand of New York’s yogurt processors. Research on the dangers of farm work shows that New York farmers are aware of safety risks, but the normalization of risk and the pace of work often prevent them from improving safety conditions.

The FTUSA Process

The Chobani-FTUSA partnership is hardly a trailblazer for dairy workers’ labor standards. In 2017, Migrant Justice, with support from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, created Milk with Dignity, a certification designed by Vermont’s farmworkers to assure better treatment on dairy farms in Vermont and New York. Milk with Dignity, not unlike FTUSA, includes a code of conduct for participating farms and a monitoring program. Unlike FTUSA, its sole focus is on labor conditions.

Despite Milk with Dignity’s record of success, Chobani, after meeting with Migrant Justice to learn more about the program, has chosen to go with its own initiative. In response, thirty-five labor, farm, and human rights organizations penned a letter to FTUSA explaining why they refuse to participate in what they called a “performative” process.

Fair trade certifications originated in the Global South. Initially, fair trade certifications offered small producers a pathway to the international consumer market. In 2012, FTUSA split from the global system overseen by Fairtrade International. Over the years, FTUSA has weakened global fair trade standards. According to scholars who argue the program prioritizes marketing over ensuring fair labor practices, FTUSA has acquiesced to the power of private sector actors, which has diluted the robustness of its certifications.

For FTUSA, labor conditions are merely one aspect of a certification that also includes environmental concerns, supply chain transparency, and improved management structures. FTUSA piloted its program on dairy farms based on their 2017 standards, and then solicited feedback, which it detailed in its 2021 “Summary of Feedback and Response.”

The majority of the comments on the labor aspects of the pilot program came from farm owners and industry representatives concerned about the costs involved in improving working conditions. That the most prominent feedback came from owners is not unusual — farm owners are highly motivated to lobby on their own behalf. Workers, on the other hand, tend to be afraid to speak up and may find literacy barriers prevent them from easily navigating documents like the 130-page standards overview.

The feedback document describes workers as “feeling happy and satisfied with their current work and living situation at their respective farms.” No other stakeholders’ comments were summarized so positively.

The FTUSA Producer Services Manager, Jamie Padilla, who prior to joining FTUSA was an organizer for United Farm Workers (UFW), is the organization’s main liaison with workers. Padilla confirmed that the workers she interviewed were largely happy, although she conceded that the opinions of the employees she interviewed may not have been entirely representative of the industry.

The FTUSA’s characterization of contented workers contradicts much of the scholarly research done on farmworkers in New York State and nationwide. Over the past twenty years, we have interviewed hundreds of New York farmworkers and found that workers’ desperate need for income drives their decisions — often at the expense of their personal well-being. Our research has revealed that farmworkers tend to be unaware of their rights. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation — often due to their immigration status — and the extreme power dynamic that exists between them and their employers.

FTUSA’s characterization of workers is also at odds with a 2017 report on dairy farmworkers in New York that found that 88 percent of those surveyed “believe their employers care more about the cows than about workers’ well-being.” In addition, nearly half of those surveyed “confided that, despite their numerous job-related concerns, they have never raised a complaint to the boss” due to fear of reprisal.

Farmworker Collective Bargaining

Historically, unacceptably long hours and poor pay have characterized agricultural work in the US primarily because significant US labor laws have not applied to farmworkers. However, in 2019, the New York Farm Laborers Fair Practices Act (FLPA) passed, giving farmworkers in New York State the right to collectively bargain, among others. New York is one of thirteen states that grant farmworkers the right to unionize.

A few months after the FTUSA-Chobani partnership, but immediately preceding the implementation of the New York State law protecting collective bargaining for agricultural workers, a coalition of farmworker advocates called upon Chobani to promote farmworkers’ right to unionize. Among these advocates was the Syracuse-based Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) whose staff, along with dairy workers, met with Chobani representatives several times to discuss how to improve conditions in the sector.

Members of the newly formed Local 338, RWDSU/UFCW, at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, New York. (Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW)

After the implementation of FLPA, farmworker organizing was protected, which prompted the statewide Agricultural Workers United campaign to organize farmworkers across New York state. The campaign includes Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, Local 888 UFCW, Local One UFCW, the UFCW International, and the national office of the RWDSU. Padilla is, however, cautious in her assessment of the new legislation:

It’s not very promising that we’ve had these new legal protections for agricultural workers in New York for about two years and have only seen one bargaining unit emerge and no contracts. To me, that’s proof right there we need a multitude of approaches.

Union organizers report that building trust with workers is a slow process, especially — as can often be the case with immigrant agricultural workers — when many are unfamiliar with union organizing. In October of last year, Agricultural Workers United held the first of many planned meetings for farmworker leaders from across the state. John Durso, the president of Local 338, explained that the goal of organizing “is to build a union culture and a farmworker movement, so that workers can improve their own living and working conditions.”

According to Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW organizers, the unionization process at Pindar Vineyards was dictated by winery workers themselves. Three Pindar workers negotiated the terms of their contracts alongside representatives of the union. Since the passage of FLPA, Local 338 organizer Noemi Barrera has visited the Pindar workers dozens of times to gauge their needs and interests:

We wanted to be sure the workers fully understood the whole process. Once the union representation was official, we did a contract survey to assess workers’ priorities. The farmworkers are the ones who drive this. I tell them this is their union and I’m their guide.

FTUSA Standards

FTUSA first published the Agricultural Production Standard (APS) in 2017. These standards, detailed in a lengthy and complicated document, are regularly updated, with a revision due in early 2022. FTUSA also produced a twelve-page “at a glance” version of the standards in an effort to increase comprehensibility.

The abridged version is still complex and likely still inaccessible to most workers. To familiarize themselves with FTUSA standards, New York workers rely on Padilla’s training sessions, which include in-person workshops with easy-to-understand slide presentations. Padilla reports she has spoken to almost every farmworker on the participating New York State farms.

The goal of APS’s certification is the “empowerment” of small producers and workers. This framing fails to recognize that business owners and farmworkers are different constituencies with different — and, at times, conflicting — interests. The use of a one-size-fits-all model to empower both producers and workers blatantly disregards the power dynamic between the two groups.

There is no farmworker representation or leadership in any of the main boards of governance at FTUSA.

Instead of workers, the organization’s board membership includes former Nickelodeon, Walmart, and Clorox executives.

By contrast, the success of the farmworker union organizing, according to Pindar Vineyards worker Rodolfo Mendez, was precisely because of its worker-centered approach. “Thanks to Local 338, we learned we had labor rights,” said Mendez at the annual Food Chain Workers Alliance Food Justice Awards. “They opened up a path for us to realize that we are valuable and our rights on the farms are very important. . . . We know that if we don’t look for our own rights, we will never get them.”

Research demonstrates that smaller farms tend to be more dangerous for workers than larger ones. Some of FTUSA’s standards do not apply to farms with five or fewer permanent workers. The Fair World Project, a watchdog organization aimed at helping consumers navigate the confusing array of fair trade programs, has criticized these small farm exemptions. In a report and in season two of their A Better World podcast, the Fair World Project points out that FTUSA’s small farms exemptions apply to some important safety measures. FTUSA does not require small farms to offer written safety instructions in a workers’ native language or to ensure that “indoor workplaces and on-site buildings are maintained to be safe.” These measures are instead listed as “best practices.”

In addition, small farms need not have sexual harassment policies or training. They do not have to offer paid maternity leave or breaks — paid or unpaid — for breastfeeding. Small farms are also not required to provide vacation or sick days.

FTUSA’s standards note that these protections may “pose a financial risk to farms and facilities.” No recognition is given to the financial and health risks workers face when they go to work sick or the challenges faced by new mothers who feel they must get back on the clock shortly after giving birth.

Despite these loopholes, Padilla is convinced she can leverage Chobani’s brand recognition “to make a difference for workers.” She observes that “any strategy that promotes workers’ interests is a step in the right direction, and in fact, a variety of tactics is needed.” She also notes that the initiative will take time and trust, which cannot be built overnight. Padilla is particularly enthusiastic about the Fair Trade Committees included in the certification program.

Workers on these committees meet to decide how to spend the premium they receive from FTUSA certified products. Of the forty-five cents certified farms receive per 100 pounds of milk sold, one-third is allocated to the farm owner to invest in the farm. The remaining thirty cents goes to the workers, who can take up to half as a cash bonus, with the rest going to “special projects” — such as covering transportation costs or health benefits. Regarding the committees, Padilla says, “The members are democratically elected by all workers. It’s a huge responsibility and, honestly, one of the most empowering things I’ve seen.”

Those who work directly with workers want to see change in dairy workplace conditions. COVID-19 has exacerbated the vulnerability of dairy workers in what were already subpar conditions. There remains a gulf between the radical change that workers say is needed in the industry and the reform efforts of an entity like FTUSA. The latter is bound to frustrate labor advocates.

Recently, consumers have joined workers and worker advocates in questioning FTUSA’s certification. Earlier this year, two people filed a lawsuit seeking class action status in a case against Chobani for deceptive marketing, fraud, and unjust enrichment. The case argues that New York’s dairy workers continue to have poor working conditions and that the FTUSA certification, by excluding small farms, neglects “the most at-risk workers on dairy farms.”

Padilla insists that FTUSA’s certification program for dairy farms is still in its infancy and will need time to prove its value and impact. In the meantime, the Agricultural Workers United campaign is engaging in labor organizing across the state. One test for Chobani will be whether the company steps forward to support workers’ collective bargaining protections if fair trade dairy farmers impede unionization efforts.

Because of Chobani’s intimate familiarity with the dangers that agricultural work entails, farmworkers and their advocates hoped the company would do its utmost to improve the lot of dairy workers. To this end, collaborating with Milk with Dignity seemed like an obvious path, especially after Ben & Jerry’s partnered with the program in 2017. Instead, Chobani has chosen a sleek PR campaign that has yet to prove whether it will improve workers’ lives.