Sexual Harassment and Violence Against Immigrants


Photo credit: oxfamnovib on Flickr

Although women make up slightly less than half of the US labor force (47 percent in 2010), the number of women subjected to sexual harassment or sexual violence vastly outnumbers that of men. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 84 percent of the sexual harassment complaints received were filed by women. And 9 of every 10 rape victims were women in 2003, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.

The situation is far worse for working immigrant women, who, because they are new to the country face additional barriers to fair treatment. They may still be learning English, for example, and may not be well-acquainted with US labor laws.

(Check out “Fair Labor at Home,” the July/August issue of the Green American to learn how workers in the US are subjected to sweatshop-style working conditions.)

The case of female immigrants working on US farms aptly illustrates the vulnerability of all women immigrant workers to sexual violence and harassment, as detailed in a 2012 report released by Humans Rights Watch, titled, “Cultivating Fear.” The report is based on interviews with over 160 farmworkers working on various types of fields in California, North Carolina, and New York, as well as members of the agricultural industry, service providers, police, and other agricultural workplace specialists within the US.

Sexual violence and harassment seems to be a manifestation of power as the people carrying out these abuses on farmworkers are supervisors, employers, and farm labor contractors—anyone who has the ability to hire and fire workers.

According to the report, most farmworkers that were interviewed had personal experiences or directly knew others who had been raped, stalked, molested or had endured exhibitionism or vulgar and obscene language.

Patricia M., was twenty-one years old when she first came to the US.  She did not have a work visa but was still able to get a job harvesting almonds. A foreman would pick and drop off all the workers every day, but on her third day, he dropped everyone off except for her. Instead, he took her to a remote field.

Patricia described him as “fat, very big.” She reported that he got on top of her and tied her hands with her bandanna to the hand grip above the truck door. Then, she said, “He took off my clothes and he raped me…. He hurt me badly.”

According to the report, after the rape, Patricia continued to work at the same farm. She could not leave the job because there was no other work available. The abuse continued. “He kept raping me and I let him because I didn’t want him to hit me. I didn’t want to feel pain.”

The worst part is that most females had not reported these abuses as they feared reprisals, and depend on their employers for their livelihoods. If a legal guestworker laboring on a farm is fired, she no longer has legal status in the US and can be deported. The situation is even worse for undocumented immigrant farmworkers, who may be threatened with deportation if they complain about sexual abuse.

So far, the US Congress has failed to pass legislation that would reform the existing guestworker system for agricultural workers, and it has also failed to pass a bill that would protect whistleblowers from reporting abuse on farms, regardless of their immigration status. So, many females suffer in silence while abusers use this fact as their weapon.

Four women who worked together in California, packing cauliflower, had a supervisor who would frequently expose himself and make offensive and degrading remarks about women. One day, they tried to defend a young woman—which resulted in all of them getting fired.

All workers, including immigrant workers, documented or not, should be entitled to the same workplace protection that workers born in the US have. However, several steps need to be taken in order to stop the pervasive problem of sexual abuse of immigrant workers, such as passing the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization bill (S. 1952) or similar legislation, which would protect whistleblowers and enhance protections for immigrant victims of violence.

— Krisna Bharvani, Green America Editorial Fellow


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