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.

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.

Immigrants who work in meat processing plants are not exposed to chemicals, but they spend their days working among sharp knives and dangerous machinery. But those who lose body parts in accidents related to knives or machines at least have a better chance of receiving health care for their injuries. Far more common are injuries such as tendinitis, caused by making the same fast, repetitive motions for hours each day. While painful and debilitating, these injuries are often dismissed by the medical staff in the plants, and workers are sent back to work with little care or relief for their pain. The best safeguard against injuries from repetitive movements are sharp knives, but one worker whose job was to slice fat from chicken breasts reported that the company would deduct $10 from her paycheck if she requested a sharper knife.

The women, by and large, found it difficult to complain to their employers about the many indignities, health hazards, and even crimes they faced on the job. Bauer reflected that, while some might think the women weren't complaining because they grew up in a different culture and were ignorant of U.S. laws, she doesn't believe that is the case. "Many women knew what was done to them was wrong and probably illegal. But other factors made them unwilling to come forward."

Those who did complain were told they could quit if they did not like their working conditions, as there was no shortage of other immigrants lining up to replace them, and sometimes employers even threatened to turn undocumented immigrants in to the authorities if they spoke up. Bauer says, "We don't give enough credit to workers for making what is really a rational decision." That is, they choose to put up with humiliating, unsafe, horrific working conditions because it's better than the alternatives of not working at all, or returning to their home countries.

Some of the women said if they knew what it would be like here in the U.S., they would not have come. Others say their lives are terrible in the United States, but they had no choice. After interviewing such a broad range of women for the report, Bauer says she was struck by the "weight of cumulative trauma" the women bore. "Many women suffered in so many ways with no significant report," she says. "You can absorb one really terrible incident, but when it's coming to you in so many ways it's courageous and brave to wake up every day and go to work."

That's the courage that literally puts the food on Americans' tables.

For Americans who no longer want to support a system of such exploitation, there are several available actions to take, although none are perfect. First, opt out of the system by procuring food that was not picked by poorly-paid immigrants. Most simply, grow your own food or buy it locally from farmers' markets. Of course, completely opting out of the mainstream exploitative food system is nearly impossible, unless you can get literally everything you need (including milk and meat) locally. But do the best you can. Another option is to buy organic, so at least whoever grew and harvested your food was not exposed to pesticides, although that only solves one problem out of many. And follow along with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' campaigns, calling on retailers to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes picked by immigrant labor and boycotting retailers that refuse. You could also support efforts of the Center for Farmworker Families, which works in both Mexico and the U.S. Long term, however, a political solution is needed, with not only immigration reform, but also a re-negotiation or abandonment of NAFTA, which single-handedly drove many Mexicans north once they were no longer able to feed their families on their family farms.


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