Oakland, Calif. — ACROSS the country, some 400,000 women, mostly immigrants, work in agriculture, toiling in fields, nurseries and packing plants. Such work is backbreaking and low-paying. But for many of these women, it is also a nightmare of sexual violence.
In a 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, more than 60 percent of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. In a 2012 report, Human Rights Watch surveyed 52 female farmworkers; nearly all of them had experienced sexual violence, or knew others who had. One woman told investigators that her workplace was called the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties.” As an Iowa immigrant farmworker told her lawyer, “We thought it was normal in the United States that in order to keep your job, you had to have sex.”
The reasons behind this epidemic aren’t hard to fathom. Fields are vast and sparsely monitored; workers are often alone. It’s particularly bad for immigrant workers: The Department of Labor estimates that about half of farmworkers don’t have legal immigration papers, which makes them especially vulnerable.
So do low wages and competition for jobs: Male farmworkers make an estimated $16,250 a year and female ones $11,250 a year. With depressed wages and so many workers competing for the same job, women are hesitant to complain.
The problem is hardly a secret. Two decades ago the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, along with California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal service program that promotes the interests of migrant laborers and the rural poor, created a joint project to concentrate on sexual harassment in the fields.
In 2005, the commission won a $994,000 victory for Olivia Tamayo, a worker at one of California’s largest cattle-feeding operations, who was repeatedly raped by her supervisor. “He took advantage because he knew I wasn’t going to say anything,” she told Ms. Magazine. “It was a trauma that followed me everywhere.”
In September, in one of the largest settlements of its kind, the commission won over $17 million for five farmworkers in Florida who had accused their supervisors of rape and harassment. Some 18 similar cases nationally after 2009 have given women farmworkers $4 million.
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