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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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Now, workers traveling to the United States are staying longer, and sometimes permanently; they can no longer count on earning even poverty wages back home, and those in the United States are afraid to leave because it’s no longer so easy to slip back across the border.

“People used to stay two, three years and go back to Mexico,” says Amí Kadar, the former director of the now defunct Congreso Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolos, an agricultural workers center in Albion, N.Y. “Now, with so much activity at the border, they’re staying seven, eight years or longer. A lot of women, their husbands are here and they want to join them.” She said some single women are coming, too. “They think, ‘Men can go and make money, I want to, also.’”

These women, like so many undocumented workers, often end up on farms, doing some of the most dangerous work in the United States. According to the National Safety Council and the Department of Labor, farm work consistently ranks among the top five industries for accidents and injuries. It’s also among the lowest paying. And for immigrant women, it’s rife with sexual harassment and abuse.

“Generally, [the perpetrator] will have some kind of legal immigration status,” says Liz Maria Chacko, a supervising attorney at  Friends of Farmworkers in Philadelphia. “This gives them power over their victims. They’ll make threats like, ‘I have papers and you don’t.’” According to Chacko, a lack of fluency in English makes the women even more vulnerable. Their immediate supervisors, who tend to be their harassers, also tend to be bilingual. If a woman complains, the perpetrator can directly present his case to the farm owner in English. The woman who’s been victimized cannot.

That’s what happened at one farm where Carolina Martínez worked. She says the manager, a Mexican immigrant himself, routinely approached women for sex. (He didn’t bother her, probably because she lived with her husband.) “He told [women] if they did not have sex with him, they were going to lose their jobs,” she says. Many women complied. Finally, one woman spoke up about the abuse to the farm owner. But, says Martínez, the owner didn’t believe her. In fact, he may not have understood her at all, because the woman spoke only Spanish and the owner, like most, spoke only English—while the supervisor spoke both. The handful of bilingual workers who could have translated were afraid to get involved. Not willing to lose his manager, owner instead fired the woman who complained—which sent a strong message to the other women.

Chacko says owners often react defensively to accusations of harassment. “The response we get is usually denial.”

A second group of agricultural laborers particularly vulnerable to harassment are those in food processing plants, says Chacko. “I don’t think I’ve spoken with a woman worker in meat packing or poultry processing who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment,” she says. “A male supervisor will just walk down the line and run his hand along their buttock, make sexual comments.” She represented one woman who worked in a food processing plant who was forced to have sex with her supervisor in order to keep her job.

Another client, Josefina Romero, grew up in Guadalajara and immigrated from Mexico eight years ago to escape working for poverty wages in a plastic bottle factory in Mexico City. Hoping to save money to help her mother, who was sick with diabetes, she headed north and eventually ended up working at a poultry plant in Pennsylvania. Romero’s new line leader liked to harass the women on the assembly line as they worked. “At first it was only words, and then he started touching women,” she says. “He’d walk behind you, make sure he wasn’t being watched, and he would grab your breasts, your ass.”

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