Women in low-wage US farm jobs say #MeToo

Women of colour in low-wage jobs face uphill battle to report and get justice for sexual abuse and harassment at work.

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    People march in support of sexual assault survivors in Hollywood last month [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]
    People march in support of sexual assault survivors in Hollywood last month [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

    Mily Trevino-Sauceda was eight years old when she first started working on farms in the US. 

    As one of 10 children, she worked before and after school in agricultural fields alongside her siblings and her father, who spoke little English but was able to find work on farms in Washington state, Idaho and California, as the family moved around the US.

    It was as a teenager, decades ago, that Trevino-Sauceda said she first encountered sexual harassment in the industry.

    "When I was a teenager and young adult, I was sexually harassed several times [at work]," she told Al Jazeera.

    But when Trevino-Sauceda tried to tell her father about the incidents, she said he asked her what she had done to prompt what had happened.

    "I silenced myself after that," she said. "I just remember crying and I remember not wanting to speak any more."

    It would be several more years until Trevino-Sauceda realised just how widespread sexual harassment, assault and violence was among women farmworkers in the US, who number hundreds of thousands across the country.

    "It was very, very hard," she said, about speaking up on sexual abuse and violence in the industry. "Some of us could talk about it, but then ... no one wanted to say, 'It happened to me.'"

    Highly vulnerable

    Last month, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organisation representing about 700,000 current and former farmworker women, published an open letter in solidarity with women who have come forward across the US to share stories of sexual harassment and assault.

    Several women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, and many more have come forward with stories of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men working in media, politics, sports and other areas.

    Women from around the world have used the hashtag #MeToo on social media to share their experiences and show solidarity with one another.

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    While many of the women coming forward worked in the US entertainment industry, Alianza wrote that its members - despite not working "under bright stage lights or on the big screen" - understood "the hurt, confusion, isolation and betrayal that you might feel.

    "Even though we work in very different environments, 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," their letter reads.

    Farmworker women are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse at work because of "a severe imbalance of power" between employers and supervisors and the workers, many of whom are immigrants, according to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report.

    Many of the women don't have legal status in the US, leaving them with little recourse to report abuse, seek legal recourse or get any other type of support. The nature of their work - seasonal, temporary and low-wage - also plays a role.

    "Whoever hires the women knows what kind of vulnerabilities they have," Trevino-Sauceda said.

    "A very large percentage of the women are undocumented," she added. 

    "They're threatened that they're going to be deported if they say anything.

    "It's not just about leaving that job and trying to look for another ... If they don't have work, where can they live? What about their families?"

    Few protections

    Sexual harassment and abuse at work is widespread in industries dominated by low wages, and these positions are often filled by women of colour, explained Chandra Childers, a senior researcher at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

    Childers told Al Jazeera the factors that lead to sexual violence in the workplace vary by occupation.

    In food services, for example, waitresses and hostesses are dependent on tips from the people they serve, which makes wanting "your customer to be happy when they leave" paramount, she said.

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    "Very high shares of these workers are exposed to sexual harassment and sexual abuse," Childers said.

    "They come to accept that that's part of the job, that it goes along with the territory, while customers may feel that it's 'part of the experience.'"

    Domestic workers, such as at-home nurses, elderly caregivers, nannies and maids, also work in isolated environments and have little protection in case of abuse.

    Many also aren't covered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that provides US workers with protection against workplace discrimination.

    "They're isolated. They're in a private home. There is no human resource for them to go report to," Childers said.

    Workers isolated

    A 2016 survey of 500 women employed in Chicago-area hotels and casinos, commissioned by local union, UNITE HERE Local 1, found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers had been sexually harassed by a guest.

    "The results were staggering," said Sarah Lyons, a researcher at the union, which represents 15,000 workers in the Chicago metropolitan area.

    European Parliament member Terry Reintke holds a #MeToo placard in October [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

    In more than half of all the cases, a hotel guest answered the door naked, or exposed himself to or flashed the employee, the report stated.

    Other instances of harassment included unwanted touching or kissing, unwanted sexual comments or demands for sexual favours.

    Ninety-six percent of the hotel workers surveyed said they would feel safer if they had access to a panic button while they work.

    "Rooms are made to be private - made to be soundproof - and the physical environment of the work puts women at a particular risk for this sort of harassment, and [it] increases the risk of not being able to escape if something were to happen," Lyons said.

    She added that the power imbalance between guests and hotel workers - many of whom are women of colour and immigrant women - also plays a factor.

    "There's a significant power imbalance between the woman who's cleaning the room and the man who can pay hundreds of dollars a night to stay in these rooms."

    'Breaking open the silence'

    In October, after pressure from the union, the Chicago municipal council passed an ordinance that requires all hotels to provide panic buttons to employees who work alone in guestrooms and restrooms.

    The ordinance covers all union and non-union hotel workers in the city and also protects them from retaliation if they report sexual violence or harassment in the workplace.

    The city has until July 1 to implement the new policy, Lyons said. 

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    "This campaign hasn't just resulted in a legislative victory, it's been about breaking open the silence around this issue," she added.

    "We really want to encourage strong implementation and continue to have people feel empowered ... [and] to speak up and to feel like they have support." 

    However, according to Childers, low-income women workers have a harder time walking away from abusive workplaces because their livelihoods - and the lives of their families - often depend on the minimum wage salaries they hold.

    She added she was unsure whether recently publicised cases of sexual harassment and abuse in industries like Hollywood would encourage low-income, women of colour to speak out about their own experiences.

    "The media is not going to be interested in many of these workers. They're not going to get the coverage that we see of these big stars," Childers said.

    Women, she said, should not be put "in a position of having to ... [decide] between keeping their job to feed their families, or have to suffer indignities that no person should have to".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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