One Glass at a Time
Workers in the Dairy Industry

Workers in the Dairy Industry

Dairy workers—the people who feed and milk the cows, clean their stalls, and perform a variety of other physically demanding farm tasks—are among the most mistreated laborers in the U.S. workforce. They put in long hours, earn low wages, often live in substandard housing, and face a variety of work-related health risks, including serious injury and even death. Indeed, the dairy industry has one of the highest rates of human injuries and fatalities within agriculture.[32] Among countless other dangers, workers drown in manure pits,[33] are killed by farm machinery,[34] die from falls,[35] are crushed to death by cows,[36] and perish beneath hay bales.[37]

Due to their exposure to a variety of toxic chemicals, gases, and volatile organic compounds, dairy workers also run an increased risk of developing chronic respiratory diseases, neurological disorders, and cancers, including leukemia; non‐Hodgkin’s lymphoma; multiple myeloma; soft‐tissue sarcoma; and cancers of the lip, stomach, brain, and prostate.[38]

More than half of dairy workers are immigrants,[39] and many of them are undocumented, making them especially exploitable and vulnerable to abuse by their employers. A report on dairy workers in New York State interviewed many who were bullied, threatened, and had experienced wage theft. They were forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. “They treated us like slaves,” said one worker who was fired after he tried to organize a workers’ committee to address health and safety issues in the workplace. “We all have rights, but because we are farmworkers, they treat us like that.” [40]

A study of dairies in California found workers forced to put in 16-hour days, seven days a week. Workers were denied meal breaks and earned no overtime pay. Some workers were verbally and physically assaulted.[41] In New Mexico, where milk is the number-one agricultural commodity,[42] an investigation found that dairy workers who’d suffered an injury requiring them to take time off found they had no job to return to once they’d healed.[43] Moreover, state law does not require dairies to provide their workers with breaks or meal periods.