Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Female farmworkers, mostly immigrants, suffering high rates of sexual abuse

A large portion of the 400,000 women working in agriculture—mostly immigrants—have been subjected to sexual violence, José Padilla and David Baco report for The New York Times. "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."

A 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz found that of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed, 60 percent said they had suffered some form of sexual harassment, Padilla and Baco write. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report of 52 female farmworkers found that most of them had experienced sexual violence or knew someone else who had. 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.”

Sexual violence in agriculture is not a new trend—20 years 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," Padilla and Baco write. The problem is that each instance has to be tried case by case, making it a long, arduous process.

"When women do file complaints, investigations can takes months, even years, which can discourage other women from speaking up," Padilla and Baco write. "And even when a case is won, criminal prosecution of the harasser or rapist rarely follows. Still, many employers do know—and use threats and intimidation to keep their workers quiet."

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has few offices in rural areas; they’re usually open only when women are working; and the staff often don’t speak Spanish, much less indigenous languages," Padilla and Baco write. "What’s more, many government agencies require complaints to be filed online. Many farmworkers do not have access to computers. The commission could make filing complaints easier by setting up a 24/7 hotline in multiple languages, with an actual person answering the phone, instead of automated messages." Another problem is that "federal regulations forbid legal aid organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance from directly representing undocumented people, and the illegal nature of their work situations makes it difficult for them to come forward."

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