For Undocumented Women, Farm Work Rife With Harassment

Hundreds of thousands of women and girls working on the nation's farms and in packing houses face the threat of sexual violence and harassment, according to a report released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 160 farmworkers, growers, law enforcement officials, attorneys, service providers, and other experts on the agricultural workplace in eight states. Nearly all of the 52 workers interviewed said they had experienced sexual harassment or violence or knew others who had.

The investigation found that perpetrators are foremen, supervisors, farm labor contractors, company owners, coworkers, and anyone else in a position to hire and fire workers or who control benefits -- like breaks and work schedules.

The farmworkers were especially vulnerable because they often depended on their employer for housing and transportation, according to the report. The women were in many cases afraid to report the abuse because many were working in the country illegally and fearful of deportation.

According to the report, 50 percent of farm labor is undocumented.

Those who did fight back said they often faced retaliation. In some cases, the women and their family members reported losing their jobs. Some who filed sexual harassment lawsuits said they were "blackballed" and shut out of jobs at other farms.

At least two other reports have found that female farmworkers are vulnerable to sexual abuse. In 2010, a survey of farmworker women in California's Central Valley found that 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment. The same year, the Southern Poverty Law Center released findings of a survey showing that the majority of the 150 farmworkers interviewed had experienced some form of sexual harassment.