May 16, 2012

II. Types of Workplace Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Experienced by Farmworkers

For a woman alone, there is much danger…. A man can catch you in the fields where the plants are taller than you.
—Rosario E. (pseudonym), North Carolina farmworker, July 2011.

Nearly every worker interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they had either personally experienced some form of workplace sexual violence or harassment or personally knew someone who had experienced it. Our research confirms what farmworker advocates across the country believe: sexual violence and sexual harassment experienced by farmworkers is common enough that some farmworker women see these abuses as an unavoidable condition of agricultural work.

As one rural legal aid lawyer put it, sexual harassment is a “recurring, day in and day out, significant problem for women farmworkers…. It’s not a made-up issue, it’s real.”[60] A 2010 survey of 150 farmworker women in California’s Central Valley found that 80 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment,[61] while a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that a majority of their 150 interviewees had also experienced sexual harassment.[62] In 1995 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency in charge of enforcing anti-discrimination laws, began specifically conducting education and outreach on sexual harassment of farmworkers. This initiative followed a meeting in which farmworkers and advocates told the agency that sexual assault and harassment were serious problems, with one worker referring to one company’s field as the “field de calzon,” or “field of panties,” because of the number of rapes that had occurred there.[63]

As described below, farmworkers reported experiencing a wide range of unwanted sexual violence and harassment.

Rape and Other Forms of Coercive Sexual Conduct

Rape and other forms of coercive sexual conduct are the most egregious forms of sexual violence and harassment experienced by farmworkers. Several women interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported they had been raped by a supervisor or co-worker.

Angela G.’s Story

Angela G., like most farmworkers, came to the US about 12 to 13 years ago for “a better life.” What she found, however, was that to survive in the US she had to work “from sun-up to sun-down.” When she first began cutting and packing lettuce, the pain in her hands was excruciating, but she managed to continue and has worked in lettuce for the past 12 years.

In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain: “There was no one to help me…. When I got home, all I could do was cry. And then I had to wake up the next morning and go to work [to survive].”

“All the supervisors were the same…. Even in those cases [where a supervisor was different], if they heard something, they just stayed quiet.”

Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.

Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”

Angela explained that she withdrew into herself and became deeply depressed: “When someone lays a hand on you, you feel like you can’t go on.” With no family near her other than her daughter, she said she would talk “in silence” to her deceased father, which “allowed me to release a lot of what I was feeling.” But she reported that the perpetrator continued to threaten her on a daily basis, even telling other co-workers what he had done, to show that he was in control. Angela came to feel that even if she lost her job, she had to do something. “I didn’t have any willpower to continue with my life, but to think this could happen to someone else, that’s when I realized I had no other options [but to report it].” She first reported the rape to the company, but when nothing happened, she spoke with a lawyer, who helped her file a sexual harassment claim against the company.

Angela’s ordeal, however, did not end there. Her immigration status was another serious factor, as she was deported in the middle of her lawsuit, and she wondered if her employer had reported her to immigration. She felt everybody in her small community knew what had happened and were talking about her. She sought therapy, but found that it was too expensive and to go to a session would require her to miss work and lose even more income. Although free care was available in her area, the wait list was very long. Yet Angela found support from her attorney, and she began to feel she could regain some of what she had lost.

In Angela’s experience, companies fail to comply with laws that are meant to protect workers. She described how she has seen management at one workplace call a meeting and pass a piece of paper for the workers to sign, even though the workers had no idea what the meeting was about or what the paper said. They were then told that if anyone asked if they received any training, they were supposed to say, “Yes.”

For Angela, it is important that her experience help other workers: “My goal is that all their eyes are open to all the abuses.”[64]

Farmworkers who had not been raped were well aware of the risk. A male farmworker who picks cabbages in New York said a female co-worker had told him in 2009 that the “American bosses” had approached her for sexual favors, and that she had accepted for fear of being fired.[65] Teresa G., a woman in North Carolina who works in tobacco, said that in 2011 a supervisor told two of her co-workers they had to have sex with him in order to get the job. When Teresa found one of the women crying, she asked why she had done it, and she replied, “My husband doesn’t have work. I don’t have work.” Teresa confronted the supervisor and told him, “You’re a fucking pig,” but he simply smiled.[66]

Rape was similarly reported to farmworker advocates in Texas, California, Arizona, and Florida. Several of the sexual harassment lawsuits brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have alleged rape as well as other forms of workplace harassment. In EEOC v. Harris Farms—a landmark case because it was the first and thus far only farmworker sexual harassment case to go to a jury trial—Olivia Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who had worked for more than 15 years at Harris Farms, one of the largest agribusinesses in the country, won a damages award of almost $1 million in 2005 after testifying that her supervisor forcibly raped her several times, sometimes at knife or gun point.[67] Other suits alleging sexual assault have involved a tree farm in Oregon[68] and an egg farm in Iowa.[69]

In many cases, moreover, relationships that appear consensual may be the product of psychological coercion or desperate economic circumstances. Veronica Z., a woman who has worked with onions and cotton in California, explained why she ended up in a sexual relationship with her supervisor:

My son broke a leg riding a bike when someone ran him over. I arrived at work late, and the foreman fired me. I returned to work because [the perpetrator] was able to get me a job, only because we had relations. I needed the job for my children.[70]

Although they were not in a relationship, she reported that he continued to coerce her to have sexual relations with him for years. Veronica said when she tried to end it, he threatened her with a gun and began harassing her at work. When she eventually filed a lawsuit against the company he worked for, the company argued that she had been in a consensual relationship with him.[71] 

A farmworker advocate in North Carolina stated bluntly, “It has to do with survival—nothing to do with free will or choice. I’ve seen 50-year-old men with 16-year-old girls who refuse to complain or discuss the relationship.”[72] A counselor at a domestic violence and sexual assault crisis center in Fresno, California, agreed that vulnerable women often end up in relationships with perpetrators of the abuse, especially if they get pregnant: “You’re having a child, you build a relationship with the perpetrator…, you’re getting financial support. [It] becomes normal to them.”[73]

Unwanted Touching, Verbal Abuse, and Exhibitionism

The forms of sexual violence and harassment most commonly reported to Human Rights Watch were unwanted touching, verbal abuse, and exhibitionism.

Many women described how supervisors and co-workers with more workplace authority than they have would aggressively ask them out on dates. Juliana T. reported that when she was working in lettuce three years ago with her boyfriend, the foreman would say to her, “Leave your boyfriend because I have papers.” Although she never accepted, he repeatedly invited her to restaurants and casinos, asking almost three to four times a week, to the point that she “didn’t know what to say or do. I was scared.”[74] Some women were openly propositioned. Monica V., who has worked in North Carolina and New York, described how when she was working in tobacco, the contractor would offer her a ride, more hours, and more money in exchange for sex.[75] Mercedes Lorduy, an attorney with VIDA Legal Assistance in Florida, reported that one of her clients was stalked by a nursery owner to the point that she had to get a restraining order against him.[76]

Several women reported that supervisors would touch them as they stooped or bent over to plant or harvest crops. Mercedes A., for example, who picked potatoes and onions two years ago in New York, said her supervisor would touch women’s bottoms and breasts as they worked.[77]

Women also reported verbal harassment and gestures that were obscene and humiliating:

  • Bianca H. described working for years with men who would touch themselves, simulate sex with each other, and make comments like, “Last night, I dreamed about you; if you only knew how I dreamed about you! How many things I did to you!”[78]
  • Claudia L., while working in grapes last year, reported she had a supervisor who made obscene and vulgar statements. “One time, my zipper was down, and he told me to zip it because he could see my vagina and he would want it if he saw it.” Although she tried to ignore him, she was frightened when he saw her working alone, ahead of the others. “He said there were coyotes who would eat me, but he said, ‘I’m going to eat you instead.’”[79]
  • Four women who worked together in a cauliflower packing house from the end of 2010 to the beginning of 2011 reported being abused by a supervisor who every day shouted things like, “Women, move your hands like you fuck!”  “You guys are fucking all day! You idiots!”  “This is dick! You guys are worth a piece of dick!”[80] Ana D. remembered, “He was all powerful. He’d say, ‘Nobody does shit to me! Everybody can suck my dick!’…. He would say to the men [because I don’t have a husband], ‘Ana needs to be fucked!’”[81] Women were not the only ones who had to suffer his abuse, as he would also take his penis out of his pants and shake it at all of his workers.[82]

Unwanted touching, stalking, and verbal harassment exist on a spectrum with sexual assault. Cindy Marroquin at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) explained, “Many times it’s a progression; it’s not that they’re assaulted just one time. Usually it starts with verbal comments or verbal threats, what they would consider providing a compliment … just putting [the victims] in a place to say, ‘I could do this to you if I wanted to.’”[83] Patricia M. (whose story begins this report) reported she was verbally harassed before she was raped,[84] and Victoria Mesa, an attorney with Florida Rural Legal Services, reported that one of her clients endured constant harassment by her supervisor who tried to touch her, made lewd remarks, and showed his penis to her before he eventually raped her.[85] An EEOC lawsuit against Willamette Tree Wholesale alleged that the same supervisor who sexually assaulted one woman also harassed her sister with graphic sexual comments, propositions, and groping.[86]

Long-Term Harassment

For farmworkers, sexual violence and harassment are not generally limited to a single isolated incident. Harassment often lasts for months, even years, and perpetrators often victimize multiple workers, regardless of whether complaints are made to company management.

Bianca H. reported that she packed spring mix and spinach for a greens company that did nothing to stop men from making obscene comments and gestures, despite complaints from Bianca and her female co-workers. She worked in this environment 12 hours a day over a seven-month season, day in and day out, for four years. Bianca cried as she remembered: “I felt horrible. Every day, you feel they are just using you…. It makes you feel like you’re worth nothing.”[87]

Marcela V. reported that she had been a forewoman for 11 years where “[e]very season, there were women who complained to me, sometimes two or three women.”[88] Although she made complaints, nothing ever happened. Eventually she and Veronica Z., who was directly harassed, filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retaliation after they lost their jobs in 2005. During the hearing, she was devastated to discover for the first time that her adult daughter had also been harassed. “We were just machines doing the work for them because they didn’t even take us seriously.”[89]

Lorena U. reported that in September 2010, she was propositioned for sex by a supervisor at a garlic farm. She consulted with a caseworker at a local agency for domestic violence survivors, who advised her to report the incident to the owner of the farm. According to Lorena, the owner said several people had complained about this supervisor, but he had never believed them.[90] The caseworker told Human Rights Watch that three different women had separately reported problems with this particular supervisor.[91]

Many of the sexual harassment lawsuits brought by the EEOC on behalf of agricultural workers have been brought on behalf of multiple survivors, often as a class action. In recent years, the EEOC has brought sexual harassment lawsuits involving multiple plaintiffs against:

  • Evans Fruit in Washington State, on behalf of three individuals and a class of women;[92]
  • Cyma Orchids in California, on behalf of four women;[93]
  • Spud Seller in Colorado, on behalf of several female employees;[94]
  • Willamette Tree Wholesale in Oregon, on behalf of two female employees and two male relatives, also employees, on charges of severe sexual harassment and retaliation;[95]
  • Holiday Specialtrees in Oregon, on behalf of two male victims of same-sex harassment and racial discrimination;[96]
  • Knouse Foods in Pennsylvania, on behalf of a class of female employees who suffered harassment on the basis of sex and national origin;[97]
  • DiMare , a large tomato farm in Florida, on behalf of at least three female employees.[98]

Four of the companies have settled with the EEOC—Cyma Orchids, Willamette Tree, Holiday Specialtree, and Knouse Foods—and in their settlement agreements agreed to broad, company-wide changes including one or more of the following: new policies and procedures to address unlawful discrimination, new trainings for managers, supervisors, and employees, and EEOC monitoring.[99] The other cases remain pending.

[60]Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Meuter, Director of Litigation Advocacy & Training, California Rural Legal Assistance, Migrant Farmworker Project, Salinas, California, April 5, 2011.

[61] Irma Morales Waugh, “Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women,” Violence Against Women, January 2010.

[62]Southern Poverty Law Center, “Injustice On Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry,” November 2010.

[63]William R. Tamayo, “The Role of the EEOC in Protecting the Civil Rights of Farm Workers,” UC Davis Law Review, vol. 33, Summer 2000, p. 1075.

[64]Human Rights Watch interview with Angela G. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with Carlos U. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011.

[66]Human Rights Watch interview with Teresa G. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011.

[67]“Jury Orders Harris Farms to Pay $994,000 in Sexual Harassment Suit by EEOC,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, January 21, 2005, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/1-21-05.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012). The verdict was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in EEOC v. Harris Farms, 274 Fed. Appx. 511, 2008 WL 1776532 (9th Cir. 2008).

[68] “Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, April 21, 2011, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/4-21-11.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[69] “EEOC and DeCoster Farms Settle Complaint for $1,525,000,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 30, 2002, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-30-02-b.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[70] Human Rights Watch interview with Veronica Z. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with Veronica Z. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[72] Email communication from farmworker advocate with NC Field to Human Rights Watch, April 21, 2011.

[73] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Rosie Lopez, Victim Advocate, Marjaree Mason Center, July 22, 2011.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Juliana T. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Monica V. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011.

[76] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mercedes Lorduy, Attorney, VIDA Legal Assistance, May 18, 2011.

[77] Human Rights Watch interviews with Mercedes A. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011; Susana J. (pseudonym), California, June 2011; and Leticia N. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview with Bianca H. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview with Claudia L. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with Natalia B., Magdalena C., Ana D., and Soledad E., California, April 2011.

[81] Human Rights Watch interview with Natalia B., Magdalena C., Ana D., and Soledad E., California, April 2011.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Cindy Marroquin, Advocacy Services Coordinator, California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA), Sacramento, California, April 4, 2011.

[84] Human Rights Watch interview with Patricia M. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[85] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Victoria Mesa, Attorney, Florida Rural Legal Services, August 2, 2011.

[86] “Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, April 21, 2011.

[87]Human Rights Watch interview with Bianca H. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Marcela V. (pseudonym), California, June2011.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Human Rights Watch interview with Lorena U. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[91] Human Rights Watch interview with caseworker (name withheld), California, June 2011.

[92]“Major Washington Apple Grower Hit with Preliminary Injunction,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, November 3, 2010, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/11-3-10.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[93] “EEOC Sues Cyma Orchids for Sex and National Origin Discrimination, Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 30, 2010, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-30-10c.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[94] “EEOC Sues Spud Seller, Inc. for Alleged Sex Harassment by Supervisor,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 30, 2010, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-30-10o.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[95] “Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, April 21, 2011, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/4-21-11.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[96] “EEOC Sues Tree Farm for Sexual and Ethnic Harassment,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 29, 2010, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-29-10n.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012).

[97] “Knouse Foods Sued by EEOC for Sexual and National Origin Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 22, 2009, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/archive/9-22-09a.html (accessed March 5, 2012).

[98] “Immokalee Farming Operation Committed Sexual Harassment Against Women, EEOC Charges,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, March 23, 2011, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/3-23-11.cfm (accessed April 7, 2012).

[99]“Cyma & Taean Orchids to Pay $240,000 for Harassment, Discrimination Against Latina Farm Workers,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, November 29, 2011, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/11-29-11b.cfm (accessed Marcy 5, 2012); “Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, April 21, 2011; “Woodburn Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit for Sexual and Ethnic Harassment,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 13, 2011, http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/9-13-11c.cfm (accessed March 5, 2012); “Knouse Foods Agrees to Pay $300,000 to Settle EEOC Harassment and Retaliation Lawsuit,” Friends of Farmworkers, Inc. press release, July 28, 2010, http://www.palegalaid.net/news/palawhelporg-news/knouse-foods-agrees-pay-300000-settle-eeoc-harassment-and-retaliation-lawsuit (accessed March 5, 2012).