Labor

#MeToo In the Fields: Farmworkers Show Us How To Organize Against Sexual Violence

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has spent more than 20 years organizing against hyper-exploitation in Florida's tomato fields.

Photo Credit: mikeledray/Shutterstock

Lupe Gonzalo works in the tomato fields of Immokalee, Fla., worlds apart from the Hollywood celebrities whose #MeToo testimony is exposing widespread sexual violence and toppling powerful men. Yet, Gonzalo says that it is women like her, “with no platform and no voice, invisible and vulnerable,” who bear the brunt of workplace sexual assault—and who offer lessons in how to band together to defeat it.

“Of course, it is incredibly important to pay attention to the suffering of all women, particularly women who work in industries and live in a society that doesn’t have protections, basic rights, where abuse is incredibly rampant,” says Gonzalo, referring to the #MeToo movement, first sparked in 2007 by Tarana Burke. “Looking at the extremity of that violence here, farmworkers began to create a solution and built a program to ensure our own rights.”

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is no stranger to staggering workplace violence. The approximately 5,000-member group, made up largely of Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti born migrant farmworkers, has spent more than 20 years organizing against modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields. In the early 2000s, these workers—some of the most exploited in the United States—took on fast-food giant Taco Bell and its corporate parent Yum Brands. After waging a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, the CIW successfully won improved wages and working conditions.

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Through its Fair Food Program established in 2011, CIW is now forcing 14 food giants—including McDonald’s and Trader Joe's—to meet farmworkers’ demands for workplaces free from violence, coercion, slavery and sexual assault. This labor agreement includes a 24-hour worker-complaint hotline monitored by an independent council, as well as worker-to-worker political education and organizing programs. According to Gonzalo, the model is premised on the principle that “workers themselves are monitoring their own rights”—tackling sexual assault alongside other workplace abuses.

Sexual violence in the “isolated fields and packinghouses”

In the crosshairs of harsh immigration laws and exploitive industries, farmworkers are highly vulnerable to sexual violence, explains Gonzalo, who organizes with CIW. “Many come from many other countries and are immigrants, often from indigenous areas, and speak indigenous languages, creating language barriers,” she says. “Some are undocumented. There are laws on the books protecting workers, but they aren’t actually enforced.”

These observations are backed up by research. In 2012, Human Rights Watch released a report which found that immigrant farmworker women and girls based in the United States face high levels of rape, sexual assault, harassment and violence in their workplaces. In an industry where up to 70 percent of workers are undocumented, many fear harsh reprisals and deportations for speaking out. Employers lord over this vulnerable workforce—and use their power to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity.

An academic study published in 2010 determined that, of 150 Mexican immigrant women farmworkers in California, 80 percent said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

In November, the national farmworker women’s organization Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote an open letter to sexual assault survivors in Hollywood “on behalf of the approximately 700,000 women who work in the agricultural fields and packing sheds across the United States.”

“We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen,” the letter states. “We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country.”

“Even though we work in very different environments,” the letter continues, “we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.”

“Movement, not a moment”

Nely Rodriguez, a Mexico-born farmworker who has lived in Immokalee for 12 years, organizes with CIW. She tells In These Times that worker-to-worker education provides the organizing muscle behind the Fair Food Program. “We have education sessions to explain what sexual harassment looks like,” she says. “It is a boss asking you for a sexual favor in exchange for work. It is vulgar jokes and comments. We are empowering workers to speak out and ensure that their own rights are protected in the workplace.”

According to Rodriguez, this education and outreach has itself spurred a cultural shift. “We are seeing that farmworker men are more open to making the cultural change in the industry and within themselves by helping to end sexual harassment in the field,” she explains. 

CIW is entering 2018 with its sights set on Wendy’s, which has so far refused to join the Fair Food Program despite organizing drives, marches and a national boycott. Wendy’s status as a holdout is especially troubling to Rodriguez because the company operates in Mexico, where workers on mega-farms face rampant abuse and slave-like conditions. In September, CIW launched a “Harvest Without Violence” mobile museum to highlight sexual assault throughout the agricultural supply chains of industry giants—including Wendy’s.

On March 11 through 15, farmworkers and their allies will launch a fast outside the Manhattan office of Nelson Peltz, the chairman of the board of Wendy’s. “Corporations like Wendy’s don’t care that workers have to go silent,” says Rodriguez. “They are profiting from these abuses.”

As CIW continues this fight, Gonzalo hopes that the organization’s model of “worker-driven social responsibility” is useful to workers in other industries. CIW’s approach has already inspired Vermont farmworkers’ Milk With Dignity campaign, launched in the fall of 2014 to hold corporations responsible for abuses committed throughout the food chain.

Meanwhile, low-wage workers across a range of industries are speaking out against the sexual violence they are forced to endure. "Too many of us face sexual harassment on the job, and don't know where to go or fear retaliation because of immigration status," Daniela Contreras, an organizer in New York City with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, tells In These Times. "By me telling my story in this moment, I'm creating space for other domestic workers to come forward, and transform the way low-wage workers, immigrants and women of color are valued in our society.”

Ana Orozco, the national organizer for feminism and gender justice at the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, tells In These Times, “I think it it's important that #MeToo leads to a movement, not just a moment. This means hearing directly from group like Immokalee workers, women who are migrant workers, working-class folks who face a variety of obstacles on a daily basis.”

In Immokalee, Rodriguez says CIW members will continue the worker-to-worker organizing they have been doing for years. “What we’re trying to do with the Fair Food Program is break the culture of silence and fear and communicate to workers that we are no longer in the times that have passed,” she underscores. “We have the power to speak and end the silence. We don’t want fear and silence to persist any longer.”

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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. Her work has appeared in publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, she co-edited the book "About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War."