Los Angeles, CA- Over the past year, there have been a number of high-profile sexual harassment cases involving women who work in the agriculture industry. These women, who are typically immigrants and unaware of their rights, have been subjected to rape, sexual assault and inappropriate sexual comments and touching.
The producers of Frontline chose to the utilize the case of Evans Fruit, a Cowiche, Washington-based company, to illustrate the prevalence of sexually abusive behavior female farm workers, many of whom are immigrants, are subjected to, and rarely fight against.
At least 14 women, who worked for Evans Fruit, said they had to fend off sexual advances from male employees, including a foreman who was later fired. But in the Evans Fruit case, the plaintiffs were denied a jury trial because attorneys for the company argued that the women did not follow the law, and file an official complaint with their supervisors.
To the producers of “Frontline” this case demonstrated the challenges women working the fields face. A report by the Human Rights Watch, released in May of 2012 showed that sexual assault and abuse of migrant farm workers is very common. Most female farmworkers interviewed said either they or someone they know have been subjected to inappropriate or forcible sexual behavior.
“It’s difficult for workers to discuss because it’s such a challenging issue. There are a lot of taboos,” Bernice Yeung, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif., explained to the Tri-City Herald. “When you add layers of economic instability and documentation status issues, it makes it especially difficult.”
Grace Meng, researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the study “Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the US to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment,” spoke with 160 women working farms in California, North Carolina and New York and found a disturbing pattern of sexual abuse and the use of power to keep victims silent.
What Meng discovered was shocking. One California woman admitted that she was raped by a make supervisor who forced her to be silent by threatening her job, he told her that “she should remember it’s because of him that [she has] this job.”
Another farm worker New York said that a supervisor on the farm she worked would touch hers and other worker’s breast and buttocks. He warned them that if they spoke to anyone about his abuse he would call immigration services and have them deported.
The list of abusive sexual behavior foisted on vulnerable farm female farm workers goes on, and it’s only by bringing the issue to light can it be changed. This is one of the numerous reasons “Frontline” decided to tackle the issue.
Female farm workers often fail to report incidents of sexual harassment for the same reason many American women in other workplaces refuse to report this behavior; they are afraid of reprisals, and believe that they will lose their jobs if they speak up about the abuse.
The laws forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace are well-known to American-born women, but migrant workers are not always aware of or informed of their rights so education is key to prevent future abuse.