May 16, 2012

IV. The Lasting Impact of Workplace Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment

Even after workplace sexual violence or harassment ends, survivors continue to suffer the consequences of the abuses. They may have physical injuries and psychological trauma. The abuses sometimes destroy relationships with family members, particularly husbands and partners. And many farmworkers face significant challenges obtaining necessary medical treatment for their physical injuries and mental trauma. Survivors who report abuses to company management or rebuff advances risk getting fired and experiencing other forms of retaliation, including being reported to immigration authorities.

Physical Injury, Psychological Trauma, Social Ostracism, and Disruption of Family Life

Several survivors of workplace sexual violence and harassment told Human Rights Watch they suffered serious physical and psychological trauma as a result of the abuse:

  • Maria A. said she was initially scared to report her rape in the summer of 2010, but when she found herself still in pain three months later, she sought medical treatment in a hospital, which then referred her to a social services agency. Now, she said, “I try to be strong…. Sometimes when I am sad, I begin to cry. I ask God not to let this happen to me again and protect me from bad people. I am going to see a doctor because every time I have intercourse with my boyfriend, it hurts and I bleed. I think something was hurt or damaged.[151]
  • Patricia M. (whose story begins this report) reported that she still feels pain resulting from physical assault and rape. She feels lucky to be in a good relationship now, but “sometimes, I remember [being raped] and I can’t be intimate with my husband.”[152]
  • Veronica Z., who reported being coerced into a sexual relationship with a supervisor, became deeply depressed, according to her caseworker: “She used to come see me every day, so depressed. She would clench her teeth because of the pressure.”[153]

In an EEOC sexual harassment case against a tree farm, an Oregon federal court ruled that the lawsuit should move forward even though one of the women who alleged rape did not file her claim within the 300-day time limit prescribed by law. The court concluded that the psychological damage suffered by the survivor—including post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, suicidal ideation, social isolation, and panic attacks—justified her delay.[154]

Verbal harassment can be debilitating as well. Four years after leaving the job where she was harassed, Lucia A. was brought to tears as she recounted her story. For over 10 years, she said, she endured daily harassment while packing broccoli: “Every time I went to the bathroom, [my supervisor] would make comments about my bottom and say vulgar things…. I feel a lot of pain remembering this.” Although she was interested in talking to a professional therapist, she believed she could not afford it.[155]

Several farmworker survivors of sexual violence and harassment, as well as farmworker advocates, reported to Human Rights Watch that they suffered from adverse community and family reactions to revelations that they had been abused. It is difficult to discuss sexual violence and harassment in any culture, but it can be particularly difficult in communities where it is commonly assumed the victims are at fault. One male farmworker who has been a supervisor and a foreman declared, “Women are to blame for it as well. I see that they are alone, single, not married. I see that they like being told these things.”[156] Farmworker women, such as Carolina M., agreed that “men think it’s our fault; they think you smiled at them; they never believe us.”[157]

Rosana C., a farmworker in New York, reported seeing immediate damage to her relationship with her husband when she became a victim of sexual violence and harassment. She was raped by a co-worker about five years ago, and more recently she has been subject to daily harassment by a co-worker who sends her text messages multiple times a day. Rosana’s pain is exacerbated by her husband’s reaction: “He’s machisto…. He blames me; he thinks I provoked [the rapist]. And now I’m telling him this man is harassing me at this job but [he won’t do] anything to protect me.”[158]

Irma Luna, a community worker at California Rural Legal Assistance, has encountered victims who similarly were blamed by their husbands. “We had a female working in a packing house with her husband in the Arvin/Lamont area. She was harassed by the foreman…. She tried telling her husband; it went pretty ugly. She kind of got discouraged and disappeared.”[159] 

Limited Access to Necessary Social Services

Several farmworker survivors of severe workplace sexual harassment and sexual violence reported that they had sought therapy and other mental health services. A few were able to get some counseling and emotional support, but the vast majority were unable to access these often crucial services. Some thought it would be too expensive, not realizing free care was available. Those who were offered free care found that the wait-list was very long or the free care was inadequate.[160] Rosana C. was offered services, but when she tried to call a shelter number, she found no one spoke Spanish.[161]

Many victim advocates agree and say there is a desperate need for more mental health and support services, including transportation to therapy sessions. Spanish-speaking private counselors are extremely rare in rural areas, and even where they exist they are often hours away from the communities that need them.[162] As one attorney stated, “For a woman experiencing trauma, dealing with work and family, to travel two hours to speak with a therapist is not going to happen.”[163]

When free individual counseling is available for undocumented and uninsured workers, it is often limited to survivors of rape who are willing to assist prosecutors or are in need of emergency services. Survivors of less severe forms of sexual violence or harassment, who are not eligible for state-funded victim services, generally cannot access the care that they need.[164]

The experience of the women we spoke with most likely does not convey the full extent of the problem, as they at least made contact at some point with a social service agency. Many farmworker survivors of sexual violence and harassment most likely are never in touch with agencies. Lideres Campesinas, an organization that has been working to improve services for farmworker women throughout California, told Human Rights Watch that the culture of rape crisis centers and hotlines can be “incomprehensible” to farmworkers: “When women call into a number, it asks them to call another number. Or the numbers have letters [in English] like ‘GET HELP.’”[165]

In cases where workers we spoke to did report crimes, they most often did so because social and legal service organizations had conducted extensive outreach until “someone in the community said, ‘Go to them, you can trust these people.’”[166] Such trust typically cannot be gained simply through traditional outreach. For example, agencies serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault frequently create support groups for survivors, but these subjects are taboo in many farmworker communities. According to Cindy Marroquin at CALCASA, “what works best is just having groups in general where people get together…. It’s just hanging out with your neighbor, and there’s no specific agenda.”[167] Amparo Yebra, director of an agency with a strong presence in its small Central Valley, California, community concurred, saying their approach is to convene support groups every Friday with speakers on topics as varied as nutrition and budgeting information. Her agency’s clients “stay here for years, even though their problems [are] solved, they still come back if they have a letter in English they don’t understand, with bills…. Anything that they need, they can come into our office.”[168] The Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, an agency in Bakersfield that has slowly built support groups in the smaller towns around Bakersfield, noted they “[had] to really pound the pavement,” and consistently convene support meetings, even if no one showed up, in order to build trust.[169]

Developing the capacity to serve farmworkers who do not speak English is obviously a major challenge, particularly in states where there are few bilingual Spanish speakers, let alone speakers of other relevant languages. In upstate New York, a community worker found that when she looked at websites of local agencies, “[they’re] not in Spanish or Haitian Creole; they don’t have advocates or interpreters.”[170] 

Although increasing access to therapy and similar services will initially require financial investments—a difficult proposition when government budgets are tight—such services can make a tremendous difference for survivors of sexual violence and harassment. As recounted in the beginning of this report, Patricia M. reported that she first came to an agency because she hoped to file for disability insurance due to her inability to work while pregnant. The workers she met there were the first people who heard what happened to her, and the agency helped her file a report with the police, something she says she could never have done without them. “For a whole year, I came all the time. They gave me the strength to move on with my child.”[171] And greater outreach and prevention services may ultimately reduce the economic costs associated with sexual violence.[172]

Termination and Other Forms of Retaliation

Many of the cases described to Human Rights Watch involved victims who were fired, either for reporting abuse or for rebuffing advances. Monica V., for example, said she was propositioned repeatedly by a contractor when she was working in tobacco. When she said no, “I want to earn my money with the sweat of my brow,” he would not allow her to take bathroom breaks or even short breaks to stand up from stooping. When she was in so much pain that she had to stand up and rest, “he said there was no job for me.”[173] For Natalia B., refusing her supervisor’s advances eventually led to termination, she reported, not just for her, but also for her co-workers and friends who tried to defend her. The harassment intensified until one day, she broke down and began to cry. Her co-worker Ana D. comforted her and told the supervisor, “You’ve gone overboard.” He responded, “Anyone who doesn’t like it, get the fuck out of here.” He fired Natalia, Ana, and two other co-workers who had defended her.[174]

Many farmworkers work with other family members, and termination not only threatens the livelihood of one person, but of the entire household. As previously recounted, Ana I., a 16-year-old working in tobacco in North Carolina, reported she was fired twice, along with her mother and her mother’s partner, for refusing advances.[175] Similarly, Sergio Guzman, Secretary-Treasurer at United Farm Workers, recounted meeting a young woman from Oaxaca who cried as she told him the foreman was repeatedly asking her to have sex with him, and she did not know what to do because the last time she had refused advances, the supervisor had fired her entire family, so that five people were left without income.[176] Several EEOC lawsuits have involved families where one person was alleged to have been targeted for sexual harassment, but the entire family was retaliated against when he or she reported it.[177]

Termination as retaliation is often challenging to prove because farm work is seasonal. In some cases, a farmworker is not terminated right away but simply is not rehired the following season when work starts again. Lucia A. reported she had been working for about 17 years at the same company packing broccoli and cauliflower during the season, normally from November to March, when she finally decided to report harassment she had been enduring for over 10 years. The next November, she was not rehired.[178] Marcela V. similarly reported she had been a forewoman at an onion packing plant for 11 years when she tried to help Veronica Z. report ongoing sexual harassment to company management. Both women were not rehired the following season.[179]

Many farmworkers live in employer-provided housing, and unlawful termination for reporting harassment can also lead to unlawful eviction and loss of shelter. The sexual harassment lawsuit against Giumarra Vineyards, one of the largest grape growers in the country, includes allegations that after a teenage girl was sexually harassed, all those who defended her, including members of her family, were terminated one day after complaints were made and forced to immediately vacate their employer-provided housing. The case remains pending.[180] Mark Heller, an attorney in Ohio, described a similar sexual harassment case where the woman first came to him reporting she had been evicted after she was harassed and then fired.[181]

Some farmworkers expressed fear that if they were to report the abuse, they would not only lose their jobs, but also be blacklisted by other employers. Since bringing a complaint against an onion packing plant in 2005, Veronica Z. reported she has had difficulty finding steady work: “Every packing shed where I get a job, I start for a couple of days, and then I get laid off. I think they’re checking my record. My son and I applied to work at a tomato cannery, and my son was hired but not me.”[182]

Even when workers are not fired, their harassers can make life difficult for them. Workers can be kept from taking breaks or from going to the bathroom, or they can see their hours or pay cut. Guadalupe F., a poultry processing worker, said that when she reported her supervisor’s harassment to the company, he began to make her life even more difficult. She was assigned to tasks near liquids to which she was allergic, he refused to let her take days off when she needed to take care of her children, and he threatened to go to the office and tell them she was working under someone else’s papers.[183] Similarly, Belen F., who was harassed for being transgender, reported being demoted from being a foreman to a line worker, with corresponding cuts to her pay.[184]

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

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

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

[154]“Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, April 21, 2011; see also EEOC v. Willamette Tree Wholesale, Inc., cv-09-690-pk, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25464 (D. Or. 2011).

[155]Human Rights Watch interview with Lucia A. (pseudonym), California, April 2011.

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

[157] Human Rights Watch interview with Carolina M. (pseudonym), California, August 2011.

[158] Human Rights Watch interview with Rosana C., New York, August 2011. Another Mexican immigrant low-wage worker, who was a victim of rape by an acquaintance outside the workplace, reported that her husband had separated from her after hearing about the rape. Human Rights Watch interview with Tricia B. (pseudonym), California, August 2011.

[159] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Irma Luna, Community Worker, Indigenous Farmworker Program, California Rural Legal Assistance, July 22, 2011. Similar stories were recounted by other farmworker advocates. Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Victoria Mesa, Attorney, Florida Rural Legal Services, August 2, 2011; and Juanita Ontiveros, Community Education and Outreach Advocate, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, July 7, 2011.

[160] Human Rights Watch interviews with Angela G. (pseudonym), California, June 2011; Lucia A. (pseudonym), California, April 2011; and Miriam G. (pseudonym), California, August 2011. Miriam G. is not a farmworker, but as an unauthorized immigrant, her experience seeking services after being raped was similar to the experiences of farmworkers.

[161] Human Rights Watch interview with Rosana C. (pseudonym), New York, August 2011.

[162]Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Jenifer Rodriguez, Attorney, Colorado Legal Services, August 5, 2011; and Liz Chacko, Attorney, Friends of Farmworkers, July 29, 2011. Human Rights Watch interviews with Amparo Yebra, Executive Director, Westside Family Preservation Services Network, Huron, California, June 17, 2011; Raye Bugnosen, Clinical Services Manager, Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, Bakersfield, California, June 27, 2011; and Lorena Reyes, Peer Counselor, Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, Bakersfield, California, June 27, 2011.

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

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

[165]Human Rights Watch interview with Daniela Ramirez, then-Executive Director, Suguet Lopez, then-Director of Programs and current Executive Director, and Ramona Felix, Statewide Coordinator of Sexual Assault, Harassment, and Trafficking Programs, Lideres Campesinas, Oxnard, California, June 29, 2011.

[166]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Laura Contreras and Blanca Rodriguez, March 17, 2011.

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

[168]Human Rights Watch interview with Amparo Yebra, Executive Director, Westside Family Preservation Services Network, Huron, California, June 17, 2011.

[169] Human Rights Watch interview with Raye Bugnosen, Clinical Services Manager, Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault, Bakersfield, California, June 27, 2011.

[170] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Lew Papenfuse, Executive Director, and Cheryl Gee, Community Worker, Farmworker Legal Services of New York (now merged with Workers’ Rights Law Center as Worker Justice Center of New York), May 5, 2011.

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

[172]For more on the economic impact of rape, focusing specifically on intimate partner violence, see US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States,” March 2003.

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

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

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

[176] Human Rights Watch interview with Sergio Guzman, Secretary-Treasurer, United Farm Workers, Salinas, California, June 30, 2011.

[177] “Oregon Tree Farm Settles EEOC Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Retaliation,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, April 21, 2011; “Giumarra Vineyards Sued by EEOC for Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Against Farm Workers,” US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission press release, January 13, 2010, (accessed April 3, 2012); see also EEOC v. Giumarra Vineyards Corporation, Complaint, Case No. 1:09-cv-02255 (E.D. Calif. 2009).

[178]Human Rights Watch interview with Lucia A. (pseudonym), California, April 2011.

[179]Human Rights Watch interview with Marcela V. (pseudonym), California, June 2011.

[180]EEOC v. Giumarra Vineyards Corporation, Case No. 1:09-cv-02255 (E.D. Calif. 2009); Human Rights Watch interview with Megan Beaman, Attorney, Migrant Farmworker Project, California Rural Legal Assistance, April 27, 2011.

[181] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mark Heller, Managing Attorney, Migrant Farmworker and Immigration Program, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., August 29, 2011.

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

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

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