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Wednesday, 06 June 2012 09:38

Farmworkers Face Rape and Sexual Abuse Epidemic in the Fields

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BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

At the age of twenty-one, Patricia M. arrived in the United States from Mexico without a work visa. She eventually found a job harvesting almonds. Within days of starting her job, her foreman took her to a remote field and, "got on top of her and tied her hands with her bandanna to the hand grip above the truck door." Then, Patricia M. told Human Rights Watch, "He took off my clothes and he raped me.... He hurt me badly."

Alone and unable to leave the farm, Patricia M. was repeatedly raped: "He kept raping me and I let him because I didn't want him to hit me. I didn't want to feel pain." She later found out she was pregnant, "and went to a social service agency where the employees asked her whether she had a partner. That question prompted her to tell them everything, and the agency helped her file a police report." The foreman was deported and wasn't charged with any crime.

According to a new Human Rights Watch report titled "Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment" - written by Grace Meng - Patricia M.'s story is not unusual.

In its interviews, Human Rights Watch found numerous stories of rape and sexual harassment: A supervisor, who continued to threaten her afterward, raped Angela G., a single mother in California. "An 18-year-old indigenous woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, who spoke no English and practically no Spanish, reported her rape to a local farmworker women's organization but left the area before the organization was able to help her seek justice."

"Nearly every worker" Human Rights Watch talked to, "reported that they had either personally experienced some form of workplace sexual violence or harassment or personally knew someone who had experienced it." Human Rights Watch's "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."

"Cultivating Fear" points out that "Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the United States today work in fields, packing houses, and other agricultural workplaces where they face a real and significant risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment. While the exact prevalence of workplace sexual violence and harassment among farmworkers is difficult to determine due to the challenges of surveying a seasonal, migrant, and often unauthorized population, the problem is serious."

In putting together "Cultivating Fear," Human Rights Watch interviewed 160 farmworkers, growers, law enforcement officials, attorneys, service providers, and other agricultural workplace experts in eight states and, "almost without exception, they identified sexual violence and harassment as an important concern."

The data compiled by Human Rights Watch is consistent with other recent surveys on the subject: "A 2010 survey of 150 farmworker women in California's Central Valley found that 80 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment, while a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that a majority of their 150 interviewees had also experienced sexual harassment."

"Sexual violence and harassment in the agricultural workplace are fostered by a severe imbalance of power between employers and supervisors and their low-wage, immigrant workers," the report explains. "Victims often then face systemic barriers - exacerbated by their status as farmworkers and often as unauthorized workers - to reporting these abuses and bringing perpetrators to justice."

Although it is a figure that is extremely difficult to ascertain, it is believed that there are approximately 1.4 million crop workers in the United States, with an additional 429,000 livestock workers. A little over 70 percent are foreign born; mostly in Mexico.

According to a report by Daniel Carroll, Annie Georges, and Russell Saltz, ("Changing Characteristics of US Farm Workers: 21 Years of Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey," Immigration Reform and Agriculture Conference: Implications for Farmers, Farm Workers, and Communities, University of California, Washington, D.C. Campus, May 12, 2011), at least 50 percent of farmworkers are unauthorized. Many believe the numbers are higher than that.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), which surveys crop workers, about 24 percent of farmworkers are estimated to be female. "Cultivating Fear" points out that "About three percent are under 18 and many of these children are girls. Some women work with their husbands, but others are single mothers who, unable to support their children in their home countries, migrated to the US in search of work."

"Women face particular difficulties in farm work," the report notes. "They are vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment and other forms of gender discrimination, and they face the significant challenge of taking care of children while working in an industry in which benefits like sick leave and paid vacation are extremely rare."

In a recent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "Female farmworkers at risk of sexual abuse, report says," Grace Meng pointed out that "most farmworkers do not see the police or other government officials as a source of help."

Anti-immigrant initiatives such as Alabama's HB56, a law that doesn't even "tolerate their presence in the country, as well as federal programs that involve local police in immigration enforcement, like Secure Communities," do not help abused female farmworkers, Meng explained.

"Everyone, regardless of immigrant status, is entitled to protection from crimes, but many farmworkers fear that when they complain to the police, the first thing they will be asked is if they have immigration papers."

"Cultivating Fear" points out that in order, "To meet its human rights obligations to these farmworkers suffering sexual violence and harassment, the US government and agricultural employers must take steps to reduce and eliminate these barriers." In that regard the report offers a series of "Key Recommendations" to the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the US Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), all state governments, local law enforcement agencies, and agricultural employers.

The recommendations are geared toward having the above named entities acknowledge the seriousness of the situation for women working in America's fields, provide basic protections for workers that have been traditionally treated differently than workers in other industries, and take steps to protect female farmworkers - regardless of their immigration status - from sexual abuse.