By Vic Bedoian
Hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworker women and girls in the United States face a high risk of sexual violence and harassment in their workplaces because U.S. authorities fail to protect them adequately. That’s the conclusion of a shocking report released by Human Rights Watch. The 95-page report, called Cultivating Fear (available at www.hrw.org), describes rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism and vulgar language by supervisors, employers and others in positions of power. The report underscores legislation that languishes in Congress to help correct that situation.
Grace Meng, the New York–based author of the report, traveled throughout California and other states to document the findings. She discovered a chilling scenario of abuse and intimidation against farmworker women who were trapped between two stark realities—sexual harassment or losing their jobs and possibly being deported.
Meng observes that “the stories followed a very common pattern where a foreman or supervisor or someone in a position of power would take advantage of their power to abuse farmworker women or girls and make threat of job loss or reporting to immigration authorities if the person did not comply.”
Meng relates one woman’s experience, which provides a template for a much larger picture, “I interviewed a woman who said she had been raped by a supervisor, and she said afterward he said very explicitly, ‘You need to remember that it is because of me that you have this job.’ He continued to threaten her so she would be intimidated from reporting the abuse.”
Field workers in the Central Valley face this ominous threat too. Felicia Espinosa is an attorney in the Fresno office of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). The legal aid firm provides help for underserved populations including farmworkers. She says many women wait until after the work season to report abuse for fear of losing their job.
Intimidation is not just confined to the abused worker, “Retaliation is not just going to be against myself, it’s going to be against my family,” Espinosa was told. “Either they’re going to get fired right now, or they’re not going to be hired for the next season, or they’re going to be blacklisted. One foreman will tell another foreman not to hire the family because they are troublemakers.”
Sexual abuse is not only being directed at women but also against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Dan Torres investigates LGBT cases in the fields and factories of California, working out of the CRLA San Francisco office. He reports, “We’ve seen patterns wherein particular transgender workers look for work in the farming industry and are turned away because their appearance is gender nonconforming. Or, if they do get work, they are taunted and harassed by the foremen or coworkers.”
Local attitudes vary regarding the investigation of sexual abuse. In Salinas, for example, the police take such crimes seriously. This has made a difference in abuse being investigated and prosecuted. But Espinosa says the most effective change will come when farm owners take notice, “The person with the most power to change this are the agricultural employers themselves. They are the ones that, hopefully, will do more training, that will follow up with their foremen, make sure the foremen are reporting what they’re doing and have more supervision of the workers doing actual training.”
Espinosa emphasizes the most critical step is that “if there is a complaint, to investigate the actual complaint.”
Congress is currently in gridlock over passing the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate version extends protection to groups on the edge such as undocumented immigrants and Native Americans living on tribal land. The House bill is more restrictive. Mainly, the opposition is coming from the Republican majority, which seemingly doesn’t want to recognize the human rights of all humans in America.
Meng concludes that the root of intimidation that society doesn’t want to recognize is the inconvenient fact that most farmworkers are undocumented immigrants and fear coming forward. Greater legal protection will help reduce sexual abuse, but Meng maintains that immigration reform is necessary for a more lasting resolution.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.