U.S. Female Farmworkers: Silent Victims of Sexual Violence
New immigrants have a lot on their plates. They’ve left their homeland behind for one reason or another, are likely separated from at least some of their family members and have to face the enormous stresses of finding a job and fitting in to their new surroundings. For undocumented workers, add to this list the constant threat of being discovered and deported, especially with the heightened anti-illegal immigrant sentiments and legislation that have cropped up in recent years.
For female immigrants, particularly undocumented farm workers, sexual harassment and abuse present yet another stressor. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, women and girls employed as farm workers in the U.S. are increasingly becoming victims of sexually charged insults, rape, groping, stalking and indecent exposure at the hands of their employers and overseers. Grace Meng, the report’s author, sums it up:
- 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 f—ed!” When they tried to defend one young woman whom he singled out for particular abuse, he fired all of them.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, the number of female seasonal farm workers in the U.S. floats somewhere around 630,000. Apparently somewhere between 50-80% of them have suffered from sexual harassment and/or abuse. If you do the math, that’s quite a large number of women and girls being sexually abused on U.S. soil with little or no access to retribution.
Meng cites a number of factors. She says that farm workers already have a particularly tough go of it. They aren’t covered under laws like the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act, and aside from sexual mistreatment, are particularly at risk of being victims of child labor, wage fraud and health risks from pesticides and other chemicals.
Not all the victims are undocumented immigrants, but the HRW report states that at least 50% of farm workers employed in the U.S. have illegal status. This obviously presents yet another obstacle for sexual abuse victims, and their abusers are well aware of it. If abused women report their employers, they not only face increased threats, but also deportation. This gives attackers a huge edge over their employees. Again, Meng:
“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.”
Hmmm…sexual abuse or deportation and even more desperate poverty? It doesn’t exactly seem like a fair choice. Even women who hold guest worker visas don’t have a clear path to justice. They’re also at risk because they must maintain a good relationship with their employers in order to keep and hopefully renew their visas. Something tells me reporting your boss for sexual abuse may not be the best move for securing your legal status. Aside from deportation concerns, even if victims work up enough courage to report their attackers, they face a long, complicated legal battle that can be overwhelming for those with limited education and/or command of English.
So what can be done?
According to Human Rights Watch, there is at least one legal provision for these women. “U visas” offer victims temporary legal status in exchange for reporting their abusers and cooperating with police. Women receive a certificate from the police that they then submit with their temporary visa application.
Sweet. Justice at last…or so it would seem.
Unfortunately, while law enforcement officers seem perfectly willing to rout out and deport illegal immigrants, they don’t necessarily display the same sense of justice when investigating claims of abuse against them. Anti-immigrant initiatives like Secure Communities, and legislation in both Arizona and Alabama complicate illegal immigrants’ access to U visas. Some law enforcement individuals deny victims certification, using the misguided argument that they don’t want to help undocumented workers get green cards (not what a U visa is at all).
Additionally, the future of U visas and other protections for female farm workers suffering from sexual abuse is dependent upon the Senate pushing through its version of the Violence Against Women Act. It’s time to write/email/call/otherwise hound your senators and push for strengthening provisions for farm worker and immigrant protections — especially for women and girls. Otherwise, it seems thousands of women who provide the back-breaking labor necessary to put fresh produce on the tables of millions of Americans each day will continue suffering egregious sexual abuse with little or no hope for justice.
What do you think? How else can we take action to stop sexual abuse of female farm workers? Please leave your comments below.
Photo Credit: brainware3000 via Flickr