PROTECT FEMALE FARMWORKERS
By Jose R. Padilla and David Bacon
NY Times, JAN. 19, 2016
Oakland, Calif. - ACROSS the country, some 400,000 women, mostlyimmigrants, work in agriculture, toiling in fields, nurseries and packingplants. Such work is backbreaking and lowpaying. But for many of thesewomen, it is also a nightmare of sexual violence.
In a 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, morethan 60 percent of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed said they hadexperienced some form of sexual harassment. In a 2012 report, HumanRights Watch surveyed 52 female farmworkers; nearly all of them hadexperienced sexual violence, or knew others who had. One woman toldinvestigators that her workplace was called the "field de calzón," or "field ofpanties." As an Iowa immigrant farmworker told her lawyer, "We thought itwas normal in the United States that in order to keep your job, you had tohave sex."
The reasons behind this epidemic aren't hard to fathom. Fields are vastand sparsely monitored; workers are often alone. It's particularly bad forimmigrant workers: The Department of Labor estimates that about half offarmworkers don't have legal immigration papers, which makes themespecially vulnerable.
So do low wages and competition for jobs: Male farmworkers make anestimated $16,250 a year and female ones $11,250 a year. With depressedwages and so many workers competing for the same job, women arehesitant to complain.
The problem is hardly a secret. Two decades ago the EqualEmployment Opportunity Commission, along with California Rural LegalAssistance, a legal service program that promotes the interests of migrantlaborers and the rural poor, created a joint project to concentrate on sexualharassment in the fields.
In 2005, the commission won a $994,000 victory for Olivia Tamayo, aworker at one of California's largest cattlefeeding operations, who wasrepeatedly raped by her supervisor. "He took advantage because he knew Iwasn't going to say anything," she told Ms. Magazine. "It was a trauma thatfollowed me everywhere."
In September, in one of the largest settlements of its kind, thecommission won over $17 million for five farmworkers in Florida who hadaccused their supervisors of rape and harassment. Some 18 similar casesnationally after 2009 have given women farmworkers $4 million.
Yet these cases involve only a tiny percentage of women who work inagriculture. Research shows that harassment and abuse are much morewidespread - and casebycase litigation isn't enough to change that.When women do file complaints, investigations can takes months, evenyears, which can discourage other women from speaking up. And evenwhen a case is won, criminal prosecution of the harasser or rapist rarelyfollows.
There are several steps we can take to slow this scourge. Education andoutreach are critical - not just for women working in the industry, but alsofor consumers who can put pressure on the industry to crack down. At thesame time, employers themselves often don't know what's going on in theirown fields.
Still, many employers do know - and use threats and intimidation tokeep their workers quiet. We need stronger laws against retaliation, andprotections for undocumented workers who come forward.
The administrative barriers to complaints must also be addressed. TheEqual Employment Opportunity Commission has few offices in rural areas;they're usually open only when women are working; and the staff oftendon't speak Spanish, much less indigenous languages. What's more, manygovernment agencies require complaints to be filed online. Manyfarmworkers do not have access to computers. The commission could makefiling complaints easier by setting up a 24/7 hotline in multiple languages,with an actual person answering the phone, instead of automated messages.
Criminal prosecution of sexual assault cases needs to increase as well.District attorneys and state prosecutors must step in, making indictmentsand fining bosses who tolerate harassment. Women will feel safer filingcomplaints if they know their attackers can't just walk away. There has beensome success along these lines, including a recent conviction in San Benito.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to fighting harassment in thefields is America's immigration policy itself. Federal regulations forbid legalaid organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance from directlyrepresenting undocumented people, and the illegal nature of their worksituations makes it difficult for them to come forward. Finding a pathtoward documentation and legal employment for these women would alsoempower them to report those who rape and harass them.
Last year, California Rural Legal Assistance settled a $1.3 million casefor a farmworker who was assaulted in a raspberry field, and then sent backto work in her bloody and ripped clothes. "It's the saddest thing that hashappened to me in my life - for me it's like a wound that's there," our clientsaid during the sentencing phase of the case. "I just don't know how I'll beable to get out of this trauma."
José R. Padilla is the executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance.David Bacon is the author of "The Right to Stay Home."