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Farmworkers in the United States are terribly vulnerable workers—they are low-paid, 50 percent or more are undocumented, many do not speak English, and they are excluded from many federal labor law protections—and the 24 percent of farmworkers who are women are still more vulnerable, earning still less than men and experiencing sexual harassment and assault at sky-high levels, often at the hands of their supervisors. And among the few legal protections available to these women are those that the Republican version of the Violence Against Women Act weakens.

A Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with dozens of farmworkers as well as many attorneys, service providers, law enforcement officials and others involved in the agriculture industry details the problems these women face. The problem is widespread:

A 2010 survey of 150 farmworker women in California’s Central Valley found that 80 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment, while a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that a majority of their 150 interviewees had also experienced sexual harassment.
Because assailants are often supervisors, women who resist sexual harassment or assault are often fired in retaliation, sometimes along with their entire families or with coworkers who try to stand up for them:
Monica V., for example, said she was propositioned repeatedly by a contractor when she was working in tobacco. When she said no, “I want to earn my money with the sweat of my brow,” he would not allow her to take bathroom breaks or even short breaks to stand up from stooping. When she was in so much pain that she had to stand up and rest, “he said there was no job for me.” For Natalia B., refusing her supervisor’s advances eventually led to termination, she reported, not just for her, but also for her co-workers and friends who tried to defend her. The harassment intensified until one day, she broke down and began to cry. Her co-worker Ana D. comforted her and told the supervisor, “You’ve gone overboard.” He responded, “Anyone who doesn’t like it, get the fuck out of here.” He fired Natalia, Ana, and two other co-workers who had defended her.
Passing the expanded, bipartisan Violence Against Women Act rather than the weakened, Republican one is an important part of protecting immigrant farmworkers who have been or are being abused. But as long as farmworkers are such a vulnerable population, left out of federal labor law because they are farmworkers, left out of other laws that might protect them because they are undocumented, paid so little that they are always desperate and dependent on their supervisors, these abuses will continue. Ending rape, harassment and assault as routine aspects of the lives of female farmworkers requires broad-based reforms—immigration reform, labor law reform, law enforcement agencies that are willing to take action on behalf of the powerless.


Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Wed May 30, 2012 at 11:04 AM PDT.

Also republished by House of LIGHTS, Rape and Domestic Violence, and Daily Kos.

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