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There aren’t many jobs in the United States that are tougher than farmwork- — picking crops under a sweltering sun, earning just enough to survive, jumping from one unstable seasonal job to another. But the job is especially unbearable if you have to work yourself to exhaustion all day under the watch of the man who raped you.
There have over the years been numerous reports of widespread sexual abuse of women farmworkers- — everything from being called demeaning names by supervisors to brutal sexual assault. Many of the victims suffer in silence, cut off from law enforcement and social services and fearful of losing their jobs if they come forward to authorities, according to a report on sexual violence in agricultural work by Human Rights Watch.
The report, based on dozens of interviews with survivors and advocates, outlines the multiple barriers to justice that women face- — not just institutional sexism but also crippling poverty and discrimination in law enforcement. Women may feel they have little choice but to suffer humiliating treatment and abuse in order to support their families. The consequences of reporting sexual violence can be devastating for the whole household, because the boss might fire both the victim and the family members who work alongside her.
Women make up a sizable minority in a male-dominated agricultural workforce. The economic oppression that afflicts the farmworker population generally is exacerbated by a climate of gender oppression, in which women are viewed as sexual objects, and victims of abuse may face devastating social stigma even from their own community. Single women, indigenous, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers are especially at risk, according to HRW researchers.
The testimonial of Angela G. describes how her abuse was enforced by layers of silence and impunity ingrained in the workplace culture:
In her experience, women in general were not valued by the supervisors and the foremen, but Angela reported that because she did not have a partner, she was singled out for abuse. “I was called a dyke; they said I was a lesbian…. [The supervisor] and the foreman would laugh.” She was afraid to say anything because others who had complained of sexual harassment had been fired immediately. But to listen in silence day after day caused her a great deal of pain…
Angela stayed on, however, because she wanted to get promoted, earn a higher salary, and be better able to support her family. And then one day, a supervisor asked her to come over to his house to pick up some boxes. Angela reported that after she entered the house, he raped her.
Angela said she felt powerless: “For me, it felt like an eternity. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Afterward, he said I should remember that it’s because of him that I have this job, and if I say anything, I’ll lose my job…. I was afraid to call the police, to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. My mind was completely blocked off.”
No one knows how often this scene is repeated every day on the vast industrial farms that have drawn hundreds of thousands of migrants. But since the migrant farm workforce is the product of federal labor, food and immigration policies, the government is at least complicit in, if not at the crux of, this system of exploitation.
Although the law should theoretically protect all women from such abuse, immigrant workers are deterred from reporting work-related sexual violence because the law tends to criminalize them rather than treat them as survivors deserving of justice. As federal and state authorities have focused on arresting and deporting the undocumented, immigrant communities have every reason to see police as a source of terror, not protection.
Although special immigration relief known as the U‑Visa is available to victims of crime, advocates are concerned that the qualifications for the visa are too stringent for people who are dealing with trauma and economic hardship. Access to counseling and other services is also severely constrained by language and culture barriers that make it hard for social agencies to build trust with underserved communities.
At the same time, sexual victimization is part of a continuum of exploitation, and as long as farmworkers, whether they’re here legally or not, are excluded from equal labor and civil rights, suffering in all forms will remain an intrinsic part of the agricultural system. Grace Meng, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program who authored the report, said that while farmworkers face unique threats on the job, “a lot of the factors that make them vulnerable are true of unauthorized immigrant workers in a lot of industries.” Although special remedies like the U‑Visa might help address individual violations, she said, “We think that the most practical and effective way to deal with the vulnerability of these workers and this population to crime and other abuses is to enact comprehensive immigration reform.”
It should be no surprise that on America’s farms, so many women are treated as less than human, since not even the government sees them as worthy of respect under the law.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.