Esther Abarca, immigrant farmworker and mother of three, had just begun working for Evans Fruit Co., one of the nation’s largest apple producers, when she was assaulted by her supervisor. The foreman, Juan Marin, took her far into the orchid and began to grope her until her cries became too loud and he stopped. In return for her silence on the assault, he offered her $3,000 for a new car, PBS reported.
Instead of accepting the bribe, she took her case to federal court—an extremely rare public accusation for a Mexican immigrant. Abarca was only the second case of reported assault of a female farmworker to reach the federal level. Although agriculture is America’s oldest industry, the first sexual harassment lawsuit against a grower to reach a trial was in 2004.
At the trial, over a dozen women spoke out against Marin and several other crew leaders who sexually assaulted them on the job. Marin has not been arrested or prosecuted in a criminal court over the allegations.
“I’ve been accused of sexual harassment, and that’s completely a lie,” Marin said in one of several interviews. “Because I never bothered nobody. The only thing I’ve been doing in my life is work. To me it’s so unfair, because I never did nothing like that in my life.”
Four years later, Marin was fired for alleged embezzlement.
THE LAW DOESN’T APPLY TO AGGIES
Nationwide reports of harassment and sexual violence against female farmworkers are common, but perpetrators are rarely legally punished. In a review of 41 federal cases, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporter Program at UC Berkeley could not find one case where the man accused of sexual assault or rape had been criminally prosecuted. In fact, rather than prosecuting the perpetrator, 85% of workers who made sexual assault complaints to company management were in turn demoted, fired or further harassed.
Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being
raped and assaulted on the job, but law enforcement has failed to prosecute potential crimes. In virtually all of the cases reviewed by CIR and IRP, the assailants held positions of power over the women. These supervisors have remained on the job for years without consequence to their actions.
Men dominate the agrarian industry from leadership positions to contractors making female farmworkers the minority on the field. Because there are far fewer female workers than men and the work itself is often invisible or isolated, women face sexual harassment on the field at an increased rate.
According to the Community Alliance for Global Justice, workplace sexual violence against farmworkers and other-low wage immigrant women ranges from inappropriate touching and comments to murder. Even when a farmworker seeks legal action against their assaulter, it is brought into civil court rather than in a criminal proceeding. There is a failure to prosecute those accused of sexually assaulting or raping female farm workers which leads to a lack of reliable data.
However, a 2010 study of 150 farmworkers by UC Santa Cruz’ Irma Morales Waugh found that 80% of all Mexican female farmworkers had been sexually assaulted at the job site. Oftentimes, the threat of deportation is used to sexually coerce and assault migrant farmworkers as 71% of that demographic are subject to deportation. Waugh’s study found that “women reporting sexual harassment also described experiences of sexual coercion, or on-the-job blackmail.” Blackmail in these cases involves the threat of deportation, getting fired or the loss of housing.
ISOLATION AND COERCION
Farm workers refrain from reporting sexual assault for a variety of reasons—immigration status, language barriers, social isolation and gender statistics. Financial worries also trap migrant women in their jobs when they are sexually abused by their bosses. Because the agricultural industry is the least regulated on labor rights, farmworkers can be fired without legal documentation for the cause of termination. For a female worker trying to provide for her family, leaving the job is not an option.
The sexual assault of female farmworkers in not new according to Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community and longtime farmworkers’ rights activist.
“Unfortunately, in the agricultural industry, especially in the large agricultural corporate farms, if women complain or there’s even an issue of women possibly filing a lawsuit or complaining about harassment, the retaliation that they get from that is usually losing their jobs,” Guillen said.
Another factor to consider is isolation. Because they work in rural communities and are primarily immigrants, most farmworkers live in tight-knit communities and worry that they will be marginalized if they tell anyone they have been assaulted.
According to Lauren DaSilva, deputy director of the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, “Many families don’t want to talk to the indigenous language interpreter because they feel, even if this is not the case, that the indigenous language interpreter is going to tell all their business to everyone else in the community, because the interpreter might be from the same community.”
According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, over half of the farmworker population is undocumented—this gives their bosses the flexibility to rape without consequence. Farmworkers are excluded from various labor law protections including sick leave, employer exploitation, termination without documentation and sexual harassment policies.
However, even with these factors, farmworkers still have legal rights even if they are undocumented—the problem is that they do not understand that they have these rights. According to Legal Aid at Work, with a few exceptions, undocumented workers are provided legal rights in California—mainly basic health and safety laws.
While undocumented workers are not protected from deportation if their employer retaliates against a sexual assault claim, a 2014 bill in California extends certain protections from sexual abuse.
While a number of federal labor laws ranging from minimum wage to underage work do not apply in agriculture, certain states such as California, Oregon and Washington, provide stronger legal protections.
“If there’s violation of wage and hour laws, if there are children laboring in the fields, of course there’s going to be sexual harassment, because even the bread-and-butter issues aren’t being addressed,” Ramón Ramírez, founder and president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste told PBS.
In rural areas, access to attorneys for low-income farmworkers is limited, making it difficult to file cases in state courts. Furthermore, state prosecutors are reluctant to file criminal charges as these cases can be difficult to pursue. When reports are made, there are usually little to no witnesses or evidence. The burden of proof in criminal cases is much higher than in civil court.
“If you get into a courtroom and there is no physical evidence, it’s a tough nut to crack,” said Sgt. Kris Zuniga of the Avenal Police Department in Kings County, California. “If there is some evidence, he can say it was consensual and then you’re back to a he said, she said.”
Female farmworkers will continue to be targeted at disproportionate rates by their male supervisors if action is not taken. Many migrant women do not have a full understanding of their rights due to lack of education, resources and an ever-present language barrier. Furthermore, policy makers are allowing perpetrators to circumvent the law. California state law penalizes agricultural work contractors who do not provide training to prevent sexual harassment or who employ supervisors who have been accused of harassment. But according to the state’s Department of Industrial Relations, no contractor has been denied a permit to operate in California due to violating those requirements.
Undocumented workers are still human and they should be protected through legal means. Whether that means through pro-bono legal aid or by policymakers instilling firmer laws and requirements, change needs to happen at an institutional level.
Rape crisis centers and non-profits in agricultural country have developed unique ways to connect with and assist farm workers. Community Solutions, a non-profit that serves South Santa Clara County and San Benito County, developed a promotora program—peer educators who work within their community provide information on domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking to farmworkers.
According to Perla Flores, Community Solution program director, the peers are Spanish-speakers recruited from a pool of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors. More than 500 farmworkers in local counties were connected to services to address their sexual assault cases. Source List
Hernandez, T., & Gabbard, S. (2016). Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey … Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2015-2016.
Soriano, S. (2020, January 9). The rape crisis among California’s farm workers. Capitol Weekly.
Waugh, I.M. (2010). Examining the Sexual Harassment Experiences of Mexican Immigrant Farmworking Women. Violence Against Women, 16, 237 – 261.
Yeung , B., & Rubenstein, G. (2013, June 25). Female workers face rape, harassment in U.S. agriculture industry – rape in the fields. PBS.
Yeung, B., Staff, C. I. R., & Donohue, A. (2018, May 16). Rape in the fields archives. Reveal.