May 16, 2012


This report is based primarily on 160 in-person and telephone interviews conducted by a Human Rights Watch researcher with farmworkers, attorneys, members of the agricultural industry, service providers, law enforcement officials, and other experts in California, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and the state of Washington, from March to August 2011.

We spent the longest time in California because it has the largest number of farmworkers—both authorized and unauthorized—in the United States, as well as a large number of farm labor contractors. 

Human Rights Watch also reviewed press reports, reports by nongovernmental organizations, and public records of civil litigation involving allegations of sexual harassment in agricultural workplaces, identified primarily through a search of news and legal databases and through consultations with legal service providers representing farmworkers.

We interviewed 50 workers with experience in the agriculture industry, one with experience in poultry processing, and one with experience in both agriculture and poultry processing, or 52 workers in total. The interviewees included 47 women (including several who described experiences they had as girls), two girls under 18, and 3 men. Their experiences included working with a wide range of crops in both fields and packing houses. The crops included fruit (table grapes, oranges, strawberries, figs, blueberries, apples, cherries, and melons), vegetables (tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, mixed greens, asparagus, garlic, onions, green beans, sweet potatoes, hot peppers, bell peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage), nuts (pistachios and almonds), and non-food products like cotton and tobacco.

We identified most interviewees with the assistance of rural legal service organizations, sexual assault survivor advocates, and other social service and advocacy organizations serving farmworkers. These interviewees are likely less isolated and less vulnerable on average than those who have no contact with such organizations. Given the sensitive nature of the subject and individuals’ fears about their employment and immigration status, many organizations reported knowing or having met victims who were not (or would not be) willing to be interviewed by Human Rights Watch. About 25 interviewees were referred to Human Rights Watch as having been survivors of sexual violence and/or sexual harassment. The majority of the remaining interviewees were not known by the referring agencies to be victims, but were women who had consented to being interviewed by us about their experiences as female farmworkers. Although both male and female farmworkers can be victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment, this report focuses on women and girls, for whom the prevalence of abuses is reportedly higher.

In addition to farmworkers, we interviewed lawyers representing farmworkers in sexual harassment cases, sexual assault survivor advocates, union representatives, social service providers, growers, agricultural industry representatives, regulatory agency staff, and local law enforcement officials in several localities. In total, as noted above, we interviewed more than 160 people.

Most interviews with farmworkers were conducted in Spanish, with the assistance of an interpreter. Some interviews were conducted in English or a mixture of English and Spanish, at the preference of the interviewee. Some individuals interviewed in Spanish were also native speakers of indigenous languages.

Most of the farmworker interviews were done individually, except in a few cases where interviewees preferred to speak in small groups. All but two of the 52 interviews were conducted in person in the interviewees’ homes, in agency offices, or in other settings where the interviewee felt private and secure; the remaining two were done by telephone. Interviews ranged from 10 to 90 minutes in length. All participants were informed of the purpose of the interview and consented orally. Care was taken not to re-traumatize any survivors of sexual violence and harassment, and all interviewees were advised that they could decline to answer questions or terminate the interview at any time. Where appropriate, Human Rights Watch provided contact information for organizations offering legal, counseling, or social services.

No interviewee received compensation for providing information. Two individuals were reimbursed for expenses incurred in traveling to the interview location.

Given the sensitive nature of the topic and unauthorized legal status of many interviewees, Human Rights Watch assured all farmworker interviewees that their identities would remain confidential. Therefore, all farmworkers’ names have been replaced with pseudonyms, and identifying details, such as the precise date and location of interview, have been withheld.


Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment

Sexual violence and sexual harassment are used in conjunction in this report for several reasons, the most important being that neither term alone, as used colloquially, fully captures the nature of abuses described by farmworkers.

Sexual violence is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency within the US Department of Health and Human Services, as “any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone’s will,” including rape, attempted rape, abusive sexual contact (such as unwanted touching), and non-contact sexual abuse (such as threatened sexual violence, exhibitionism, and verbal sexual harassment).[13]

Sexual harassment, as defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a US agency charged with enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical harassment of a sexual nature, as well as rape and attempted rape. Under US law, workplace harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in an adverse employment decision. The harasser need not be the victim’s supervisor, but may also be a co-worker or customer.[14]

Most of the incidents described by farmworkers interviewed by Human Rights Watch qualify under these definitions as both workplace sexual violence and sexual harassment. Given this fact and the sometimes narrow colloquial understanding of these terms, both terms are used throughout the report to accurately impart the significance of these abuses.

It is not within the scope of this report, however, to make legal determinations as to whether specific incidents described by interviewees would constitute actionable claims under US law. We gave the farmworkers we interviewed the opportunity to raise any and all concerns they had about workplace sexual harassment and did not limit our interviews solely to instances of sexual harassment that would form the basis for a lawsuit.


Although the type of work most commonly associated with agriculture is planting and harvesting crops, agricultural labor includes a much broader range of tasks, including packing, canning, and working in tree farms and nurseries. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), “‘Agriculture’ includes farming in all its branches and among other things includes the cultivation and tillage of the soil, dairying, the production, cultivation, growing, and harvesting of any agricultural or horticultural commodities …, the raising of livestock, bees, fur-bearing animals, or poultry, and any practices (including any forestry or lumbering operations) performed by a farmer or on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with such farming operations, including preparation for market, delivery to storage or to market or to carriers for transportation to market.”[15] The workers interviewed in this report have experience working in a wide range of these tasks.

As noted in the methodology section above, two testimonies come from workers with experiences in poultry processing and some of the secondary accounts and published cases discuss sexual violence and sexual harassment in meat production and dairy and egg production workplaces. These were included because the immigrant workers in these environments face similar challenges to those faced by workers in forms of employment more commonly labeled “agricultural.”

Unauthorized Immigrant

This report uses the term “unauthorized” to describe individuals in the United States who lack authorization to live and work in the US. Some in this group came to the US with a visa but stayed past their visa expiration date or otherwise violated the terms of admission. Others came to the US without a visa. Some in this latter group have filed papers seeking legal status but are waiting, and likely will have to wait for years more, to obtain it due to the limited availability of immigrant visas. The term “unauthorized,” rather than “undocumented” or “illegal,” best captures the diversity of situations in this population.

[13] US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Sexual Violence: Definitions,” page last updated November 9, 2009, (accessed January 9, 2012).

[14]US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Sexual Harassment,” (accessed January 9, 2012).

[15] Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Section 3(f), 29 US Code Sections 203.