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Farmworkers and Sexual Violence

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The recent emphasis on sexual assault and sexual harassment has focused on elite institutions. That’s fine–when elites get away with it, that makes it easier than everyone else. It is worth noting that the New York Times has become such a rotten institution that since in the post-Weinstein world, it is the only institution to rally around its creep, Glenn Thrush and his stupid hat. Even the NFL is pushing Jerry Richardson out. How can you be worse than the NFL! I’ll tell you–be more focused on inside sources than actual reporting, which is why the Washington Post has so surpassed it the Times in the last year. In related news, good riddance to Don Hazen at Alternet, who has long been known to be an awful person and thanks to the bravery of these reporters who stood up to him.

Anyway, all of this focus on sexual assault at the elite level should not get in the way of remembering that everyday workers have to deal with this all the time, especially those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

In the crosshairs of harsh immigration laws and exploitive industries, farmworkers are highly vulnerable to sexual violence, explains Gonzalo, who organizes with CIW. “Many come from many other countries and are immigrants, often from indigenous areas, and speak indigenous languages, creating language barriers,” she says. “Some are undocumented. There are laws on the books protecting workers, but they aren’t actually enforced.”

These observations are backed up by research. In 2012, Human Rights Watch released a report which found that immigrant farmworker women and girls based in the United States face high levels of rape, sexual assault, harassment and violence in their workplaces. In an industry where up to 70 percent of workers are undocumented, many fear harsh reprisals and deportations for speaking out. Employers lord over this vulnerable workforce—and use their power to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity.

An academic study published in 2010 determined that, of 150 Mexican immigrant women farmworkers in California, 80 percent said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

In November, the national farmworker women’s organization Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote an open letter to sexual assault survivors in Hollywood “on behalf of the approximately 700,000 women who work in the agricultural fields and packing sheds across the United States.”

“We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen,” the letter states. “We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country.”

“Even though we work in very different environments,” the letter continues, “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.”

This is everywhere and when workers often don’t even have legal status in the United States, there is very little they can do. Bringing publicity to their cause is one way outsiders can help. Of course, a lot of whites would just deport them because those are the core values of this racist and misogynist nation. Fighting this racism and misogyny, especially at the grassroots level and protecting our most vulnerable workers should be our top priority as moral citizens. That includes supporting their unions.

Nely Rodriguez, a Mexico-born farmworker who has lived in Immokalee for 12 years, organizes with CIW. She tells In These Times that worker-to-worker education provides the organizing muscle behind the Fair Food Program. “We have education sessions to explain what sexual harassment looks like,” she says. “It is a boss asking you for a sexual favor in exchange for work. It is vulgar jokes and comments. We are empowering workers to speak out and ensure that their own rights are protected in the workplace.”

According to Rodriguez, this education and outreach has itself spurred a cultural shift. “We are seeing that farmworker men are more open to making the cultural change in the industry and within themselves by helping to end sexual harassment in the field,” she explains.

CIW is entering 2018 with its sights set on Wendy’s, which has so far refused to join the Fair Food Program despite organizing drives, marches and a national boycott. Wendy’s status as a holdout is especially troubling to Rodriguez because the company operates in Mexico, where workers on mega-farms face rampant abuse and slave-like conditions. In September, CIW launched a “Harvest Without Violence” mobile museum to highlight sexual assault throughout the agricultural supply chains of industry giants—including Wendy’s.

On March 11 through 15, farmworkers and their allies will launch a fast outside the Manhattan office of Nelson Peltz, the chairman of the board of Wendy’s. “Corporations like Wendy’s don’t care that workers have to go silent,” says Rodriguez. “They are profiting from these abuses.”

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