A nightmare of sexual violence for farm-working, immigrant women.

By Jose R. Padilla and David Bacon (Life). Protect Female Workers. Oakland, California.

Across the country, some 400,000 mostly immigrant women work in agriculture, toiling in fields, nurseries and packing plants. Such work is backbreaking and lowpaying. But for many of these women, it is also a nightmare of sexual violence.

Immigrant Farm Workers Pick Strawberries in a Santa Maria Field
SANTA MARIA, CA – 29MARCH12 – A crew of indigenous Oaxacan farm workers pick strawberries in a field near Santa Maria. Many members of the crew are Mixteco migrants from San Vincente, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico. The earth in the beds is covered in plastic, while in between the workers walk in sand and mud. Working bent over the plants all day is very painful and exhausting. Pictured: Hieronyma Hernandez. Copyright David Bacon

In a 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, morethan 60 percent of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. In a 2012 report, HumanRights Watch surveyed 52 female farmworkers; nearly all of them had experienced sexual violence, or knew others who had. One woman told investigators that her workplace was called the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties.”

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 for immigrant workers: The Department of Labor estimates that about half of farmworkers don’t have legal immigration papers, which makes them especially 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 depressed wages and so many workers competing for the same job, women arehesitant to complain.

The problem is hardly a secret. Two decades ago the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, along with California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal service program that promotes the interests of migrantlaborers and the rural poor, created a joint project to concentrate on sexual harassment 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 I wasn’t going to say anything,” she told Ms. Magazine. “It was a trauma that followed me everywhere.”

In September, in one of the largest settlements of its kind, the commission won over $17 million for five farmworkers in Florida who had accused 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 more widespread – and case by case litigation isn’t enough to change that. When women do file complaints, investigations can takes months, even years, which can discourage other women from speaking up. And even when a case is won, criminal prosecution of the harasser or rapist rarely follows.

There are several steps we can take to slow this scourge. Education and outreach 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 to keep 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. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has few offices in rural areas; they’re usually open only when women are working; and the staff often don’t speak Spanish, much less indigenous languages. What’s more, many government agencies require complaints to be filed online.

Manyfarmworkers do not have access to computers. The commission could make filing 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 indictments and fining bosses who tolerate harassment. Women will feel safer filingcomplaints if they know their attackers can’t just walk away. There has been some success along these lines, including a recent conviction in San Benito.

But perhaps the biggest impediment to fighting harassment in the fields is America’s immigration policy itself. Federal regulations forbid legal aid organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance from directly representing undocumented people, and the illegal nature of their work situations makes it difficult for them to come forward.

Finding a path toward documentation and legal employment for these women would also empower 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 clients aid during the sentencing phase of the case. “I just don’t know how I’ll beable to get out of this trauma.”

About the writers:
José R. Padilla is the executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance.
David Bacon is the author of “The Right to Stay Home.”


This article was Originally published in the NY Times, Jan 19, 2016. By Jose R. Padilla and David Bacon. Permission to post on Lupitanews.com granted by David Bacon.