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

Sarah Lazare

On November 20, farmworkers and their supporters marched through Manhattan to demand that Wendy's join the Fair Food Program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. (Photo courtesy of CIW)

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.

Through its Fair Food Pro­gram estab­lished in 2011, CIW is now forc­ing 14 food giants — includ­ing McDonald’s and Trad­er Joes — 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.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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