In recent months, stories of sexual harassment and assault have been flowing on a daily basis from the entertainment, media, and tech industries. But low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women of color, are extremely susceptible to harassment in the workplace, and their stories receive far less attention. According to data compiled by the Center for American Progress (CAP) from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), more than one-quarter of sexual-harassment charges were filed in industries with large numbers of low-wage service-sector jobs. This is particularly stunning given that low-wage workers often have few other opportunities, and may not have much padding if they lose their jobs in response to filing a complaint. The analysis by CAP found that almost three-quarters of the harassment cases include an allegation of retaliation.
In a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, nearly all of the farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced sexual violence or harassment or knew someone who had. In 2010, a study found that of 150 Mexican women working in the Central Valley in California, 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment. “Eighty percent—that’s a pandemic,” Noelle Damico, from the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, told me. After explosive allegations of sexual assault against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an association of farmworker women, submitted a signed letter of solidarity with the women of Hollywood: “We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well.”
“The history of agriculture in the U.S. always been one of sexual violence,” said Mónica Ramírez, the president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, who comes from a family of farmworkers. “On farms, conditions are ripe for it.”
“This entire industry was founded on a system of slaves, who were brought over and who suffered more greatly than we do even today, “ said Nely Rodriguez, a former farmworker who now is a senior staff member and leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). “Those roots remain generation after generation,” she told me over the phone through a translator.
In the second half of the 19th century, on the heels of the Mexican–American War and the abolition of slavery, Mexican immigrants grew as a share of the American agricultural workforce. Tens of thousand of migrant workers traveled between the U.S. and Mexico with few restrictions.
In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico created the Bracero Program, which allowed for millions of Mexican men to come across the border for short-term work, predominantly in agriculture. Although the program has long been abolished, the modern guest-worker visas perpetuate the industry’s reliance on inexpensive, plentiful foreign labor in agriculture. The H-2A visa, a temporary work visa issued for seasonal agricultural work, offers limited protection to workers, creating a power dynamic that sets the stage for labor exploitation and sexual harassment. Recruitment is a major pressure point with this visa, which permits an employee to only work for a single employer. If a worker is unhappy and wants to quit, her only way out is to leave the country altogether. “The H-2A program is very difficult program because the employer has control,” Damico said. “When you put that much control in the hands of an employer the situation is ripe for exploitation, through it doesn’t mean it happens all the time.”