5 ways to combat sexual abuse of female farmworkers

Video by Ariane Wu and Marina Luz
 

Raped by supervisors in egg-processing factories. Sexually assaulted by a foreman in an apple orchard. Forced by a manager to have sex in a lettuce field.

The extreme on-the-job sexual abuse that female farmworkers report is harrowing.

But victims often grapple with the issue in silence. Fearful that they’ll be deported, fired or blamed for what happened to them, many agricultural workers don’t tell their spouses or family members about the violations, let alone their employers or law enforcement.

So the perpetrators go unpunished. And the violence continues.    

It’s an entrenched problem without an easy fix. Since the release of our yearlong reporting project, we’ve been asked the same question: What can be done?

We spoke to advocates, researchers, workers, farmers and attorneys. While there are complex societal and cultural issues at play, they pinpointed some tangible changes that could occur. Here’s a guide to five ways that could be taken to combat rape in the fields.

Expand the Fair Food Program

One of the most promising programs to address sexual harassment and assault in the fields emerges from Florida’s leafy tomato fields.

Under the Fair Food Program, participating Florida tomato growers ­– which produce half of the national crop each year ‒ pledge to adhere to a code of conduct related to work conditions. They’re given a financial incentive to join: Major tomato buyers like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and McDonald’s have agreed to purchase Florida tomatoes only from growers in good standing with the Fair Food Program.

Farms also are subject to regular field and company audits. Those that don’t meet the standards are booted from the program.

Fair Food growers provide on-the-clock sexual harassment training for workers and supervisors. The program also runs a bilingual complaints hotline.

Some growers say the program makes them more effective in policing workplace issues like sexual harassment. There aren’t any numbers yet on the impact of the program – in its third year – but an evaluation is underway.

The project’s website shows which retailers are being actively targeted to join.

Here’s the full list of retailers who already carry Fair Food-approved tomatoes, as well as the names of the growers in good standing.

Get more agencies involved

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the only federal agency actively investigating and pursuing sexual assault and rape lawsuits on behalf of agricultural workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's job includes policing workplace violence. The same is true of its state-level counterparts. They'd be natural agencies to take a more concerted stand against sexual assault and rape on the job.

If a worker is the victim of workplace violence, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can audit the company’s safety procedures, levy a penalty and suggest prevention strategies.

The agency primarily focuses its workplace violence efforts on the health care and night retail industries, such as convenience stores, where the problem is common and widely acknowledged. But as agricultural organizations increase sexual harassment training, the federal agency could take on an expanded enforcement role.

California goes above and beyond federal law. To make sure that farmworkers avoid heat illness, inspectors conduct regular field inspections to check for access to drinking water, shade and toilets. The inspectors do not, however, attempt to address sexual assault in the fields.

They could. Similar to the Fair Food Program’s on-site audits, workplace inspectors could ask questions or provide information about sexual harassment or violence during their in-the-field evaluations, said Gail Wadsworth, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies.

Lawmakers could make sexual harassment monitoring an explicit part of these agencies' missions.

Build better relationships between farmworkers and local law enforcement

We could not find a single civil sexual harassment case filed in federal court where a supervisor accused of sexually assaulting or raping workers had been criminally prosecuted.

Agricultural workers face significant barriers to reporting the crimes. Many have immigrated illegally and may hesitate to go to law enforcement out of fear of deportation. Police and prosecutors say that immigration status has no bearing on their ability to investigate or prosecute a crime – in fact, there is a special visa given to victims of crime who agree to assist with a prosecution. But without a strong connection with law enforcement agencies, farmworkers might not know about their rights.

At least one law enforcement agency is trying to build trust with farmworkers in the wake of our Rape in the Fields project.

The victim services program of the Monterey County district attorney’s office recently invited Líderes Campesinas, a California farmworkers organization, to join a task force on domestic violence and sexual assault. The office has also invited Líderes Campesinas to give a public presentation in October on the organization’s extensive efforts to educate female farmworkers about sexual harassment. The presentation will be followed by a screening of the “Rape in the Fields” documentary.

Ensure farmworkers are counted

It’s impossible to know how many agricultural workers have been sexually assaulted in America’s fields or packing houses. No one is trying to keep a good tally. Plus, two-thirds of sexual assault and rape victims don’t report the crime, according to the Department of Justice.

Though farmworkers can be difficult to track, greater efforts could be made to reach agricultural workers and other vulnerable populations about on-the-job violence.

Federal health and law enforcement agencies are soliciting public comment on how data is collected on nonfatal workplace violence, such as rape and sexual assault.

These federal agencies are seeking to “improve and enhance” how they go about gathering information on workplace violence.

Send in your suggestions on how and why you’d like to see more data collected about the experience of farmworkers. The deadline is Nov. 27. Questions about sexual harassment and assault could also be added to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.

Require sexual harassment training

Though human resources experts say that training can increase the chances that complaints of sexual harassment are addressed quickly and effectively, only three states – California, Connecticut and Maine – require that supervisors receive it.

Mandatory training for supervisors could be expanded to other parts of the country through the state legislative process.

But supervisor training will not automatically eliminate sexual harassment – it must be effective, and businesses need to be held accountable. In California, which has some of the strongest laws, the state doesn't routinely monitor whether the training is being provided.

Educating workers on sexual harassment can also have benefits. “We have seen behavioral change on farms with the introduction of regulations for training workers on heat illness and requiring farms to adhere to specific practices,” California Institute for Rural Studies’ Wadsworth said. “I think we might see change with similar training sessions on sexual harassment.”

There’s another policy change that’s been floated as a way to curb the sexual assault of agricultural workers: overhauling immigration laws. Here's what we had to say about it in our story:

This year, growers and labor advocates are closely watching as a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws makes its way through Congress. Proponents say the bill, if approved, could offer protections for agricultural workers to more readily report abuse on the job.

“One of the fundamental reasons we have to get comprehensive immigration reform is so we can stop the daily routine rape of women in the workplace,” said U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., a vocal proponent of an overhaul.

But some who support new immigration laws have doubts that they would curb sexual harassment in the fields.

Dan Fazio of the Washington Farm Labor Association said workers who have been assaulted or raped already qualify for a special visa for crime victims. Providing provisional status through the bill, he said, “is not going to make a person more likely to come forward.”

The primary solution lies with employers, who must create a “culture of compliance,” he said. "They need to put systems in place."

 

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