Why Women Who Pick and Process Your Food Face Daily Threats of Rape, Harassment and Wage Theft
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One woman profiled in SPLC's report, Araceli, was left in the desert by her group of 30 others, all men. Fortunately for her, after two days alone in the desert, another group of migrants found her and helped her finish the trek. Another woman, Elvira, describes how her smuggler was about to rape her when she saved herself by declaring, "I have AIDS." She was successful in averting rape, but the coyote ran away, leaving her alone in the desert. Fortunately, the Border Patrol found her and sent her back to Mexico, saving her life in the process. Sexual assault during the border-crossing is so common that some women reported taking birth control pills as a precautionary measure before they go.
The massive increase in border protection has had the effect of solidifying the immigrant population in the U.S. In The Farmworkers' Journey, Ann Aurelia Lopez writes that prior to 1986, immigrants were primarily solitary men who came to the U.S. for seasonal work, who "left behind intact families, villages, and towns and planned to return to them after the harvest season." But this is no longer the case. Now that it is so difficult, costly, and even dangerous to cross the border, immigrants feel they cannot risk going back to Mexico because they might not be able to re-enter the U.S. Bauer recalled interviewees who were unable to return home even for important occasions, like seeing their elderly parents before they died. Lopez writes of similar scenarios, such as one man who worked in California's fields who had never met his two youngest sisters in Mexico. Conversely, his parents have never met his wife or children in the United States.
Once in the United States, the types of work the immigrant women find in the food industry is grueling and it pays poorly. Unfortunately, the difficult working conditions are often the least of the immigrants' problems. In fact, the immigrants said again and again that they did not expect (or want) a handout; all they want is to work and to be paid for their work. And work they do -- but they are not always paid. "Virtually all" of the women interviewed for SPLC's report complained of wage theft. Some women reported occasions where they were not paid at all, but more often the women were paid for less work than they did.
Wage theft can happen to immigrant men too. However, the immigrant women told of another form of exploitation that claims only female victims. When married couples work for the same employer, they are often paid in one paycheck in the husband's name. This practice is illegal, allowing employers to easily undercut minimum wage laws and subjecting women to their husband's financial control. In the longer term, if immigration reform is enacted, the women will have a difficult time proving their eligibility for legalization because -- at least on paper -- they were not working in the U.S.
Americans are guaranteed, by law, a safe and healthy workplace, but in practice, immigrants working in the food industry get no such guarantee. Farmworkers, fewer than 10 percent of whom reported having employer-provided health insurance, are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides on the job. Many complain of headaches and other acute symptoms of exposure, but long-term chronic exposure results in far more devastating health problems. For women, working among these chemicals can mean giving birth to deformed children, such as one who was born without any arms or legs, or another infant who was born so deformed that doctors were unable to determine gender until the autopsy after the child died.