Working in Fear: Sexual Violence Against Women Farmworkers in the United States

The tremendous imbalance of power in the U.S. agricultural industry creates an atmosphere where sexual violence is common. A recent study found 80% of women farmworkers interviewed experienced sexual violence on the job. In comparison, 25-50% of all women in the U.S. workforce have experienced at least one incident of sexual violence and 1 in 5 women in the U.S. has been raped in her lifetime.

The agricultural industry presents unique risks that increase the likelihood of sexual violence. Women are far outnumbered by men and constitute an estimated 20% of the total farmworker population. The physical environment of farm work is often remote, offering perpetrators opportunities to conceal their behavior. The nature of the work requires women to bend over and crouch, placing them in vulnerable physical positions as they work in close proximity to men. The workforce is also commonly made up of family relations, friends and neighbors, blurring the line between work life and family life, which increases the risk of sexual violence and deters women from reporting abuse.

Furthermore, the power dynamic between supervisors and low-wage immigrant women farmworkers drastically increases the likelihood of rampant sexual violence. Most perpetrators are in power positions with the authority to hire, fire or control workers. Most farmworkers have little formal education, low literacy rates and do not speak English. Supervisors usually speak English and therefore often act as the communication link between workers and authorities. Harassers often have lawful immigration status, giving them power over unauthorized workers to threaten calling immigration authorities for reporting sexual violence. Additionally, workers often depend on their employers for housing and transportation and some foremen are related to the growers or owners, making it even harder for women to stop the abuse. A high level of violence is often involved as many supervisors and owners carry guns and a perpetrator may threaten to kill a woman’s family members if she reports him.

Women farmworkers face simultaneous sexist, racist, economic, and political discrimination, making them the most vulnerable, easily exploitable and dispensable workers in the U.S. Immigrant women who were socialized in their home countries to be subservient to men are often reluctant or afraid to speak up against their male harassers. Their economic instability further heightens their susceptibility as farmworkers in the U.S. are among the poorest of the working poor with over 60% of farmworker households living in poverty and women making significantly less than their male counterparts. Immigrant-related discrimination, language barriers and fear of deportation also severely deter women farmworkers from reporting sexual violence or seeking help from police, rape crisis shelters, counseling programs and the courts.

Moreover, the agricultural industry is excluded from many of the major U.S. labor laws and those that do apply are regularly violated and rarely enforced, leaving farmworkers without basic workplace protections. Sexual harassment policies and training are not required in the agricultural industry by U.S. federal law. Although some remedies are available through civil litigation, very few criminal charges have been prosecuted against perpetrators of sexual violence in the agricultural industry. Thus, with few exceptions, perpetrators get off without many consequences.

On the bright side, legislators, advocates, law enforcement, farmworker women themselves, community organizations, academic institutions and growers are creating new ways to combat sexual violence in the agricultural industry. At the federal level, legislators have created the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), U visas and T visas to encourage unauthorized immigrants to report crimes such as sexual assault. Several states are also passing legislation that creates stronger legal protections against sexual harassment and exploitation of workers and some local law enforcement agencies are beginning to investigate farmworker sexual assault criminal charges. Additionally, numerous organizations around the country are working together to improve employer standards, increase and improve sexual harassment policies and training, raise awareness of sexual violence in agriculture and educate workers about their rights.

However, researchers must develop alternatives to traditional methods in order to gather accurate data about workplace sexual violence of women farmworkers. A lack of adequate data hides farmworkers from public attention and hampers efforts to raise awareness about the serious problems these women face. The combination of the many obstacles they encounter must all be taken into account as interrelated in defining the oppression faced by these workers and finding effective solutions.

Sara Kominers is a public interest attorney in the United States. She holds a J.D. in International Law and Human Rights from Northeastern University School of Law and a B.A. in Global Studies from Sonoma State University. As a Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy Fellow at Oxfam America, she drafted a comprehensive literature review of sexual violence against women farmworkers in the United States. Read the full report here.

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