May 16, 2012

III. Unique Vulnerabilities

The foreman is the law.
— Santiago I. (pseudonym), California farmworker, June 2011.

Immigrant women and girls in agricultural work face unique vulnerabilities to sexual violence and harassment. Contractors, supervisors, foremen, growers, and others with connections and authority wield tremendous power. William Tamayo, a regional attorney at the EEOC who has litigated several farmworker sexual harassment cases, described a pattern he has seen repeatedly in the cases on which he has worked:

The owners of the major farms tend to be white, English speaking longtime family members who turn over operations of the farm to “Jose,” a longtime employee who is bilingual and who is expected to maintain the operations and keep labor problems to a minimum—you know, “out of sight, out of mind.” The workers are geographically isolated from community services, have few options in life and are in desperate poverty.  They are dependent on Jose to navigate the English-speaking world for them. If Jose is a predator and/or his supervisors below him are predators, it is the ideal situation for sexual harassment to occur—unfettered, unpunished, and unstopped.[100]

Although anyone can be a victim, members of some groups may be more vulnerable than others. Unauthorized workers are particularly likely to be fearful of reporting abuses, and girls and young women, single women, and indigenous workers are particularly likely to be targeted, as well as unlikely to report inappropriate sexual speech or conduct.

Sexual Relations as a Supervisor’s “Perk”

Several farmworkers, including those who had worked as supervisors and foremen, told Human Rights Watch that some supervisors and foremen view the possibility of sexual relations with workers simply “as a perk of the job.”[101] Roberta C., a young woman who had done farm work as a teenager, reported that her father had recently been promoted to foreman and her mother was extremely anxious because she could not help but wonder, “If that’s what foremen do, is that what he’s going to do, too?”[102] This idea of access to sex as a perk of the job was echoed by farmworker advocates.[103] Juanita Ontiveros, a long-time community advocate with California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, reported that the “perk” is considered more likely when there is less work available and more competition for jobs: “[Women] are approached even by crewleaders, anybody who has a little bit of control or power … who say, ‘I can get you a better job, I can get you in if you put out.’”[104]

The idea that workers who agree to a sexual relationship with the foreman or supervisor get preferential treatment is so widely held that some workers believe that whenever a woman is being treated better than others—for example, being assigned less strenuous or better paying work—she must be providing something in exchange.[105] A poultry processing worker who suffered sexual harassment and then retaliation while working from 2005 to 2007 recounted:

[Another woman is] splitting up with her husband because the same supervisor [who harassed me] caused problems…. She received a promotion. People think she did something. They [assume] when he retaliates, it’s because they won’t let him [have sexual relations]. When he promotes someone, they [assume] she said yes.[106]

Some perpetrators are co-workers without formal supervisory power. Some, however, have connections to the contractor or foreman that may make them feel invincible. Maria A., for example, believed the man who raped her was close friends with the contractor,[107] while 16-year-old Ana I. was verbally harassed by the contractor’s son in the summer of 2009.[108] Sexual harassment by co-workers also occurs in environments where such behavior by supervisors is openly tolerated.[109]

Girls and Young Women

Hundreds of thousands of children under 18 work in agriculture in the United States, at far younger ages, for longer hours, and under more hazardous conditions than all other working children.[110] They are among the least likely to be able to “defend” themselves from sexual violence and harassment because “they don’t quite know what’s going on, they don’t know how to deal with it,” an attorney familiar with sexual harassment cases explained.[111] Despite the particular risks of sexual harassment in agriculture—including isolation in the fields—for young teenage girls, agriculture is often the only available work. While the minimum age for work in other industries is 16, with a few exceptions, there is no minimum age for children working on small farms as long as they have their parents’ permission, and once they are 14, they can work on any farm even without their parents’ permission.[112]

Young women, many of whom are recent arrivals to the US, are also at risk for similar reasons. An attorney who has worked on many sexual harassment cases involving farmworkers observed, “There’s no hard and fast rule, but frequently [women who report are] older, in their late 30’s and 40’s, [who] are more sure of their rights…. A lot of younger women never make it into the office.”[113]

Several farmworkers who are teenagers or who had worked as teenagers told Human Rights Watch they experienced or witnessed harassment and said those most at risk included not only children but those working alone, without their parents.[114]  One 19-year-old woman, who had started working in tobacco when she was 14, remembered her mother was always extremely protective—“[She] never left us alone,”[115]—while another who had worked from when she was in eighth grade until she started college (from about 13 to 18 years old) said she “would just cling to [her] parents,” believing “[i]t’s going to be okay as long as I’m close to them.”[116]

Paz B., an 18-year-old who has been doing farm work since she was 16, first came to the US with her sisters. But since her sisters were deported, she has been forced to work alone with a contractor who says things like, “This woman has a good ass. What she needs is a good man,” and who tells other co-workers that Paz would “sleep with any guy.”[117] There can be added pressure for girls and young women who are struggling to keep up with other workers. If a young female worker is not able to finish her row as quickly as others, her parents can help her, but if she is working alone with no family to “back [her] up,” she may be told, either implicitly or explicitly, that if she has a relationship with the foreman, “it would be okay if she were a little behind [in her work].”[118]

Girls and young women working with family members are not immune from predation, as perpetrators can take steps to separate them from their protectors. Cristina N. was a little over 18 when she was raped 12 years ago by a supervisor, who took her to a garden to separate her from her mother.[119]  A farmworker advocate in Texas reported that, in one case, a contractor sent a young woman’s mother to another field so the contractor could have unhindered access to her daughter.[120] Similarly, one of the farmworkers in the EEOC lawsuit against Evans Fruit, a major Washington apple grower, described in the EEOC’s press release “how the ranch manager refused to let her work on the same crew as her 15-year-old daughter, who he then targeted with unwelcome verbal and physical sexual attention.”[121]

Girls and young women working with their families must also deal with the risk that, should they reject advances, they may be risking not only their own jobs, but also those of their family members. Ana I., a 16-year-old girl in North Carolina whose case is mentioned above, told us she was working in tobacco two years earlier when the contractor’s son began to try to hold her hand and talk to her. When she rebuffed his advances, she, her mother, and her mother’s boyfriend were all fired. She was devastated: “Because of that, we couldn’t pay our rent or light bill or anything. It was terrible. I thought if I had never said no, we wouldn’t have ended up like this.”[122] Community workers at Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO), a California-based organization, described the case of a young Oaxacan girl, 15 or 16 years old, who had been raped by her foreman. They said the girl did not tell anyone because she was afraid he would fire her father, who was working with her. She eventually told her family only when she got pregnant, went to the hospital to give birth, and was questioned because she was a minor.[123]

Recent Immigrants

Abusers recognize that young women who have just arrived in the US and who “don’t know many things” are particularly vulnerable.[124] A sexual assault survivor advocate in Fresno described a case in which the man who raped and impregnated her client was known to prey on the “new girls.”[125] Natalia B. said she was 20 years old and had just arrived in the US with a work visa in 2010, when she found herself the target of sexual harassment at a cauliflower packing house. The supervisor was abusive to everyone in the workplace, but she reported he had targeted her, touching her and asking her almost every day, “Are you going to give me booty, yes or no?” Although Natalia was good friends with some older women at work—who ultimately defended her and were fired along with her—she was only able to tell them about the full extent of the abuse when they were no longer working at the packing house.[126]

Single Women

Although women now make up about 24 percent of the agricultural workforce in the US, they are still a minority in an overwhelmingly male industry. While many work with their husbands, there are also many single women, particularly single mothers who are desperate to keep jobs to support their children. Several farmworkers, as well as farmworker advocates, agreed that a single woman working in agriculture faced risks that a married woman would not.[127]

Marta L., a migrant farmworker who has worked in several states, including North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan, and Florida, found that when she worked without her husband at her side, she “heard bad words, they lacked respect for [her].”[128] It was only when her husband came and said, “Be quiet,” that they stopped. She noted that the risks are particularly high for migrant women workers because “there is the question of where she will sleep, bathe, use the bathroom in labor camps.” At one point, when she was separated from her husband and working alone, she found herself in a group of migrants with just one other woman. Marta made sure to share a room with that woman, as she wanted to avoid what had happened to a woman she knew, who was raped when she slept among men in a labor camp in New Jersey.[129]

Angela G., whose rape by a supervisor is discussed above, also suffered verbal harassment from another supervisor who saw she was single and called her a “dyke” and a lesbian every day. She said, “When I got home, all I could do was cry, and then I had to wake up the next morning and go to work for food to eat.”[130] Magdalena C. was similarly singled out for abuse for not having a husband. She explained that the supervisor at the cauliflower packing shed would shout, “Magdalena needs to be fucked.”[131]

Indigenous Workers

Indigenous farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to workplace abuses, including sexual violence and harassment, for a multitude of reasons. They are subject to discrimination in their home countries, then come to the US only to find that non-indigenous or mestizo immigrants continue to discriminate against them. As one farmworker reported, they are mocked for not speaking Spanish well: “They say obscene words to them, and when they don’t understand, they laugh more.”[132] Luz S., an older woman who had worked in agriculture for many years, agreed: “They are treated like they have no value … like they’re not normal people.”[133] She further noted that people who speak Spanish defend themselves, but indigenous people do not.[134] One farmworker, who is herself indigenous but speaks Spanish well, agreed: “People scream at them and they let them. They don’t know how to defend themselves. They stay quiet; they don’t even stop to drink water.”[135] Indigenous women in particular tend to speak little or no Spanish because they are less likely than men to have received much formal education.[136]

Many indigenous workers are from the Oaxaca region, and the discrimination against them extends to stereotypes about Oaxacan women and their sexuality. One male farmworker who has been a supervisor and a foreman casually stated, “All the supervisors and foremen believe that Oaxacan women like men more…. They like it because they don’t say anything about it.”[137]

Several of the most egregious incidents of sexual violence and harassment reported to Human Rights Watch involved indigenous women and girls. The teenage rape survivor assisted by community workers at CBDIO, whose case is described above, was more vulnerable both because of her age and because her primary language is Zapoteco.[138] Ines R., a young farmworker and a member of Lideres Campesinas, a farmworker women advocacy organization, is fluent in Mixteco, and she recounted the story of a young Mixteco farmworker she had tried to help about two years ago. This woman told her she had been raped by a man who then stopped at a gas station. She dialed 911, the only number she knew, but when the police came, they spoke only English and Spanish, and interviewed her with the perpetrator in the same room. Because she was afraid and unable to communicate, she said she had not been raped. She later reported to Ines, “I felt like nothing, nothing, no heart, no feeling.” Ines said, “I read [the police report], and it said they couldn’t do anything because the girl doesn’t know how to speak Spanish.” Ines hoped to help her follow up on the police report, but soon afterward, the young woman left the area.[139]

The largest numbers of indigenous workers are in California, but they can be found all over the US. Victoria Mesa, a legal services lawyer in Florida, reported that one of her clients, a woman from Chiapas, was sexually harassed by a supervisor in a nursery “to the point he almost raped her.” When her client reported the supervisor to management, she was fired.[140] The EEOC recently settled a case against a tree farm in Oregon in which two male workers alleged both same-sex harassment and ethnic harassment due to their identification as Mixtecos, an indigenous group from Oaxaca, Mexico.[141]

The vast majority of indigenous workers, however, are extremely reluctant to report any kind of abuse. Sexual harassment is a particularly sensitive subject and difficult to discuss openly in indigenous communities.[142] Jeff Ponting, an attorney and director of the Indigenous Farmworker Program at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), believes that because indigenous peoples typically have experienced discrimination in their home countries, they distrust governments and authorities even more than other unauthorized workers.[143] Although they are one of the fastest growing farmworker populations, growers, regulatory agencies, and social service agencies have made little effort to acknowledge the particular linguistic and cultural needs of this group. California law, for example, requires trainings to be provided only in Spanish and English, with no requirement that the workers understand. Ponting reports that a California agency only hired its first indigenous outreach worker after concerted advocacy by CRLA.[144] For Ponting, indigenous-focused outreach will pay dividends because the communities are tight-knit and well-organized, and those within the communities who do assert their rights can be “fierce advocates.”[145]

LGBT Workers

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) farmworker population faces its own particular challenges with regard to both sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.

CRLA and the National Center for Lesbian Rights discovered there was a serious need for improved legal services for LGBT people in rural California communities and created Proyecto Poderoso (Project Powerful) in 2007.[146] Dan Torres, director of the program, told Human Rights Watch that the anti-LGBT animus is so strong that the comments and actions that create a hostile work environment for LGBT workers can also hurt those who are not

LGBT or even perceived to be LGBT. The stigma also discourages victims from reporting.[147] 

Belen F., a transgender woman who said she had experienced discrimination in Mexico and had hoped life in the US would be different, reported she was sexually harassed and her partner was assaulted at an asparagus packing plant in California four or five years ago. Belen had been working at the same packing plant for several years when she was promoted to foreman. She said she then began to hear the owner of the plant calling her “joto or faggot,” and they repeatedly reduced her wages to the point that she was making less than her assistant.[148]

Legal services providers elsewhere in California and in other states also report encountering cases of same-sex sexual harassment, both against workers who identify as LGBT and against those who do not,[149] and at least one EEOC case has involved an allegation of same-sex harassment against two indigenous male workers.[150]

[100] William Tamayo, “Rape, Other Egregious Harassment, Threats of Physical Harm to Deter Reporting, and Retaliation,” American Bar Association, Fifth Annual Labor and Employment Law Conference, Seattle, Washington, November 2011, http://www.asianlawcaucus.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Discrimination-Against-Asian-Americans-in-the-Workplace-Bill-Tamayo-ABA.Many-Faces.pdf (accessed February 2, 2012).

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[103] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Juanita Ontiveros, Community Education and Outreach Advocate, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, July 7, 2011; and Julia Perkins, spokesperson, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, May 20, 2011.

[104]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Juanita Ontiveros, July 7, 2011.

[105] Human Rights Watch interviews with Barbara L. (pseudonym), California, August 2011; Esperanza P. (pseudonym), California, June 2011; and Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[106] Human Rights Watch interview with Guadalupe F. (pseudonym), North Carolina, August 2011.

[107]Human Rights Watch interview with Maria A. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview with Ana I. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011.

[109] Human Rights Watch interviews with Barbara L. (pseudonym), California, August 2011; and Bianca H. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[110] Human Rights Watch, Fields of Peril: Child Labor in US Agriculture, May 5, 2010, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2010/05/05/fields-peril-0.

[111] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Laura Contreras, Attorney, Columbia Legal Services, and Blanca Rodriguez, Attorney, Northwest Justice Project, March 17, 2011.

[112] Human Rights Watch, Fields of Peril, May 5, 2010.

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Michael Marsh, Directing Attorney, California Rural Legal Assistance, Salinas, California, April 26, 2011.

[114] Human Rights Watch interviews with Mariana T. (pseudonym), California, August 2011; Talia F. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011; Rosario E. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011; Marisol Z. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011; Juana J. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011;  Paola B. (pseudonym), California, June 2011; and Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Isabel H. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with Paz B. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011.

[118]Human Rights Watch interview with Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview with Cristina N. (pseudonym), California, August 2011.

[120] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Roman Ramos, Paralegal, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, April 25, 2011.

[121]“Major Washington Apple Grower Sued for Sexual Harassment,” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, June 25, 2010.

[122] Human Rights Watch interview with Ana I. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011.

[123]Human Rights Watch interview with Fidelina Espinoza and Oralia Maceda, Community Workers, Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indigena Oaxaqueno (CBDIO), Fresno, California, June 20, 2011.

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

[125] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ileana Herrera, Project Advocate, Marjaree Mason Center, July 22, 2011.

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

[127] Human Rights Watch interviews with Marisol Z. (pseudonym), New York, July 2011; Roberta C. (pseudonym), California, June 2011; Pilar D. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011; Rosario E. (pseudonym), North Carolina, July 2011; and Marta L. (pseudonym), North Carolina, August 2011.

[128] Human Rights Watch interview with Marta L. (pseudonym), North Carolina, August 2011.

[129]Human Rights Watch interview with Marta L. (pseudonym), North Carolina, August 2011.

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

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

[132] Human Rights Watch interviews with Santiago I. (pseudonym), California, June 2011; and Juliana T. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[133] Human Rights Watch interview with Luz S. (pseudonym), California, August 2011.

[134] Ibid.

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

[136] Human Rights Watch interview with Jeff Ponting, Director, Indigenous Farmworker Program, California Rural Legal Assistance, Oxnard, California, June 29, 2011.

[137] Human Rights Watch interview with Emilio R. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[138] Human Rights Watch interview with Fidelina Espinoza and Oralia Maceda, June 20, 2011.

[139] Human Rights Watch interview with Ines R. (pseudonym), California, August 2011.

[140] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Victoria Mesa, Staff Attorney, Florida Rural Legal Services, Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, August 2, 2011.

[141]“Woodburn Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit for Sexual and Ethnic Harassment,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 13, 2011.

[142] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Leoncio Vasquez, Executive Director, Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indigena Oaxaqueno, April 21, 2011.

[143]Human Rights Watch interview with Jeff Ponting, June 29, 2011.

[144] Ibid.

[145]Ibid.

[146] “NCLR Launches New Project Combating Discrimination against LGBT People Living in Rural California,” National Center for Lesbian Rights press release, December 17, 2007, http://www.nclrights.org/site/PageServer?pagename=press_proyectopoderoso (accessed March 13, 2012).

[147]Human Rights Watch interview with Dan Torres, Proyecto Poderoso Director and Attorney, California Rural Legal Assistance, San Francisco, California, April 7, 2011.

[148] Human Rights Watch interview with Belen F. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[149] Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Victoria Mesa, August 2, 2011; Jenifer Rodriguez, Attorney, Colorado Legal Services, August 5, 2011; Laura Contreras, Attorney, Columbia Legal Services, and Blanca Rodriguez, Attorney, Northwest Justice Project, March 17, 2011; and Cheryl Gee, Community Worker, Farmworker Legal Services of New York, May 5, 2011.

[150] “Woodburn Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit for Sexual and Ethnic Harassment,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, September 13, 2011. In this case, two male workers alleged the supervisor and other workers would expose themselves while making sexual comments, and co-workers would grab the men’s buttock and chest area or grab them and simulate anal sex.