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(New York) – Hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworker women and girls in the United States face a high risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment in their workplaces because US authorities and employers fail to protect them adequately, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The current US Senate bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) would go some way toward fixing the problem and should be enacted, but much more needs to be done, Human Rights Watch said.

The 95-page report, “Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment,” describes rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, or vulgar and obscene language by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of power. Most farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced such treatment or knew others who had. And most said they had not reported these or other workplace abuses, fearing reprisals. Those who had filed sexual harassment claims or reported sexual assault to the police had done so with the encouragement and assistance of survivor advocates or attorneys in the face of difficult challenges.

“Rape, groping, and obscene language by abusive supervisors should not be part of the hard labor conditions that immigrant farmworkers endure while producing the nation’s food,” said Grace Meng, researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Instead of being valued for their contributions, immigrant farmworkers are subject to a dysfunctional immigration system and labor laws that exclude them from basic protections most workers take for granted.”

The report is based on interviews with over 160 farmworkers, attorneys, members of the agricultural industry, service providers, police, and other experts across the country. More than 50 women were interviewed who work with a variety of crops in California, North Carolina, and New York.

Farmworkers described experiences such as the following:

  • A woman in California reported that a supervisor at a lettuce company raped her and later told her that she “should remember it’s because of him that [she has] this job.”
  • A woman in New York said that a supervisor, when she picked potatoes and onions, would touch women’s breasts and buttocks. If they tried to resist, he would threaten to call immigration or fire them.
  • Four women who had worked together packing cauliflower in California said a supervisor would regularly expose himself and make comments like, “[That woman] needs to be fucked!” When they tried to defend one young woman whom he singled out for particular abuse, he fired all of them..

    The abusers are well aware of the relative power they have over their victims and so certain groups seem to be particularly vulnerable, Human Rights Watch found. These include girls and young women, recent immigrants, single women, and indigenous women, especially those with limited ability to speak Spanish or English.

    “Farmworker women can feel utterly powerless in the face of abusive supervisors or employers, and with good reason,” Meng said. “The abusers often repeat their actions over long periods of time, even after some workers complain.”

    Farmworker victims of sexual abuse face significant hurdles to obtaining justice. At least 50 percent of the agricultural workforce consists of unauthorized immigrants, who fear being deported if they complain.

    One farmworker told Human Rights Watch that she had been deported while her sexual harassment lawsuit was pending. When another unauthorized immigrant overcame her fear of the police to report her rape to them, her supervisor was arrested. But rather than being charged and prosecuted, he was deported, and she had heard reports that he planned to come back.

    Even the small proportion of immigrant farmworkers working with guest worker visas are vulnerable because they are dependent on their employers to remain in legal status, and thus are often just as reluctant to report workplace abuses.

    The few victims who do report the abuse face lengthy and difficult legal processes that are sometimes impossible to access for migratory, low-income workers with limited English proficiency. Furthermore, the increased involvement of local law enforcement in immigration enforcement through programs like Secure Communities and state laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56 have fueled fears of the police and other governmental authorities in rural immigrant communities.

    US law does provide one limited but important protection for some immigrant farmworkers who are survivors of sexual violence, Human Rights Watch said. The U visa provides temporary legal status to victims of certain serious crimes if they have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse and if they cooperate with the investigation. The visa thus encourages unauthorized immigrants to report crimes to the police.

    Yet even this limited protection could soon be eviscerated. As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, proposed provisions to strengthen the U visa have come under attack, while some versions of the bill in the House have imposed arbitrary and unreasonable barriers to survivors applying for the U visa.

    “Every day that it fails to enact immigration reform, Congress puts more farmworker women at risk for sexual abuse,” Meng said. “The least Congress can do now is to reauthorize VAWA with stronger protections for immigrant women.”

    As important as they are, the proposed provisions strengthening the U visa would not overcome all the barriers that farmworkers face to seeking remedies for sexual abuse, Human Rights Watch said. To apply for a U visa the victim must get a certification that he or she cooperated with a law enforcement investigation. But law enforcement officials vary widely in their willingness to certify victims, due to a mistaken belief that they are helping unauthorized immigrants “get green cards.”

    Farmworkers are also excluded from basic worker protection laws that apply to nearly every other worker in the US, including prohibitions against child labor and protection of the right to collective bargaining. The laws that do apply are not adequately enforced, and many farmworkers who spoke to Human Rights Watch reported experiencing or witnessing other workplace violations, such as wage theft, pesticide exposure, and child labor. In such an environment, farmworkers are unlikely to have faith in the ability of employers and authorities to rectify abuses, including sexual abuses.

    Finally, like other victims of sexual assault in the US, farmworker survivors often encounter law enforcement agencies that do not vigorously investigate complaints.

    Both international law and US law recognize that all workers, including unauthorized immigrant workers, are entitled to the same workplace protections as US workers. These provisions exist to minimize employers’ incentives to hire an easily exploitable workforce.

    Human Rights Watch urges the US government and employers to take the following key steps to ensure safer working conditions for immigrant farmworkers, including unauthorized workers:

    To the United States Congress:

    • Pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill (S. 1952) or similar legislation, which would provide specific funding and attention to survivors of sexual assault, including stronger protections for immigrant farmworker women and girls.
    • Enact immigration legislation that would reduce the incidence of serious abuse of immigrant workers’ rights, including by reforming the existing agricultural guest worker program and creating a program of earned legalization for the unauthorized farmworkers already in the US.
    • Eliminate the exclusion of farmworkers from important laws providing labor protections like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

    To US Department of Homeland Security:

    • Repeal programs such as Secure Communities that require or encourage local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

    To police and sheriffs:

    • Investigate vigorously all complaints by immigrants of sexual violence, regardless of immigration status.
    • Assure unauthorized immigrants that people who report crimes will not be reported to immigration authorities.

    To agricultural employers:

    • Create and enforce clear policies prohibiting sexual harassment.

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