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Undocumented Farmworkers Are 'Perfect Victims' for Sexual Assault and Harrassment

Women farmworkers face not only brutal working conditions but a climate of intimidation and virtually no protection from sexual advances.
 
 
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This article first appeared in In These Times and was reported in partnership with  The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Names of agricultural workers have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Like millions of Mexicans, Carolina Martínez dreamed of coming to the United States to work. Her plan was to put in a few years in the fields, save up enough money to return to her hometown, and build a house there for her family. Her husband was already working on a farm outside of Albion, N.Y., so she knew there was money to be made, certainly more than the few dollars per day she typically made selling food on the street.

In 2004, at the age of 21, she took her 1-year-old child and traveled some 1,200 miles by bus to the U.S. border, where she handed off her son to a friend and found a  coyote (smuggler) who would guide her and 10 others across for $2,000 each. It took a full week of hard and dangerous walking to get through the desert. She ran out of food and water, and at one point twisted her ankle, but she didn’t dare stop. “We passed people who were dead,” she recalls. But she made it out of the desert alive, reunited with her infant son—whom her friend had driven across the border—and eventually made her way to a small town outside of Rochester, N.Y., where she joined her husband. Martínez quickly found work packing potatoes and onions.

The work was hard. During planting and harvest seasons she might work 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week. But she had expected that. What she hadn’t expected was the near-constant sexual harassment on the job. The crew leader would, she says, “touch women in a sexual way… touch women on their asses.” When Martínez threatened to report him, he’d warn, “They’ll get rid of you. And if you do go to the boss, I’ll call Immigration.”

So she didn’t tell the boss. And she didn’t tell her husband either, afraid he’d be so angry that he’d pick a fight and they’d both get fired—or worse, deported. “Women have to tolerate this in silence,” she says. “Because if you talk to the owners and you lose your job, then what? Many times during lunch, I cried. I felt I was alone.” The harassment continued every day for seven months.

Cheryl Gee, a domestic and sexual violence specialist in the Rochester office of the  Worker Justice Center of New York, has heard countless such tales in the 12 years that she has provided victim advocacy to women farmworkers. “Many of them perceive rape and sexual harassment to be part of coming here and doing this work,” she says. “They believe this is what they have to go through to feed their families.”

The majority of women farmworkers interviewed in 2010 by  the Southern Poverty Law Centerand Human Rights Watch had experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault, which ranged from verbal abuse to rape. One 2010 study published in the journal  Violence Against Women estimated that as many as 80 percent of women farmworkers in certain areas of the country have been sexually harassed or assaulted on the job. It’s so bad on some farms in Florida and California that women call the fields “the green motel” or “the field of panties.”

What NAFTA sowed

Women make up slightly more than 20 percent of U.S. farmworkers, and of these, the majority are immigrants from Mexico. Women become migratory workers for the same reasons men do—in many cases, to escape rural poverty. The Mexican government estimates that 80 percent of all campesinos earn less than $2 a day.  Increases in the cost of staples such as rice, beans and eggs have made things more difficult for the working poor.  Policies such as NAFTA have also strengthened agribusiness and driven up food imports, pushing small farmers and farmworkers even deeper into poverty—and, in many cases, off their lands.

 
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