Why Women Who Pick and Process Your Food Face Daily Threats of Rape, Harassment and Wage Theft
Chances are, you've never connected your dinner to violence against women. And yet, a new report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) makes that link.
The report, " Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry," compiles the experiences of 150 immigrant women who came from Mexico or other Latin American countries to work in the food industry, both in fields and in factories, across the United States. The picture it paints is grim. Women, who make up nearly a quarter of U.S. farmworkers, face the same indignities that immigrant men face -- and then some.
Mary Bauer, SPLC legal director, noted that after years of advocacy on behalf of immigrant women, there was a "glaring absence in the literature," a gap the new report is intended to fill. The findings of the report are intimately connected to the food Americans eat, as it is virtually impossible to eat in the United States without consuming some food that was grown, harvested or processed by immigrants. As Bauer says, "There is no one in the U.S. who is not benefiting from this deeply exploitative system."
While the new report may be the first of its kind, the unique plight of immigrant women, particularly the sexual harassment and violence to which they are subjected, is not entirely undocumented. Eric Schlosser wrote of sexual harassment against women workers in a meat processing plant in his 2001 bestseller Fast Food Nation. In addition to the fondling and groping the women endured on the job, women also engaged in consensual relationships with supervisors to gain "a secure place in American society, a green card, a husband -- or at the very least a transfer to an easier job at the plant."
And then there's the nonconsensual stuff: A 2008 piece in High Country News revealed that farmworkers refer to one company's field as the "field of panties" because so many women workers are raped by supervisors. And as far back as 1993, the Southern Poverty Law Center found in its own study that 90 percent of female farm workers cite sexual harassment as a serious problem.
However, sexual harassment and violence are only one piece of a larger puzzle. The story starts in the women's home countries -- typically Mexico or Guatemala. Some left home to escape domestic violence, and at least one interviewee, an educated woman in Mexico, was promised an office job in the United States only to find herself a victim of a human trafficking operation, forced into slave labor. However, "over and over again we heard the same thing," says Bauer, "Desperate poverty and wanting a better life for their children" drove the women to leave home and head north. For many, coming to the United States involves leaving their children behind. Thinking about the sad stories she's heard, Bauer notes, "It's got to be terrible, to choose between being with your children and feeding your children."
The first hardship immigrant women face is crossing the border. With increased security at the border, going from 3,555 Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border in 1992 to over 17,000 as of 2009, Bauer says, "the easy crossing options are going away." That means that rather than walking through a checkpoint in Tijuana with phony papers, more and more immigrants, including women, are forced to walk through the desert. To make the journey, many hire human traffickers, "coyotes," who are paid exorbitant amounts (from $1,500 to $10,000) upon successfully bringing the immigrants to an agreed-upon location. When bringing a large group, a coyote will not hesitate to leave a single straggler for dead in the desert, to avoid risking the big payoff that will be earned by delivering the others safely to the U.S.