Would You Like Some Rape With Your Strawberries?

“...the EEOC reports that women in California refer to the fields as 'fil de calzon' or 'the fields of panties' because sexual harassment is so widespread.”

May 17, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Human Rights Watch just released an important report on sexual harassment and exploitation of women farmworkers in the United States. For those familiar with the uphill battle for food justice in the US, it’s a chilling, frustrating and infuriating document. Those who are not may be shocked by these findings -- and hopefully they are going to become a motivator for getting more actively curious about the source of our food.

Three million people labour on farms in the US as migrant and seasonal workers, producing the food and other crops that consumers buy from the shelves of Whole Foods to the stands in front of Chinese markets. A combination of factors makes them uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, creating a system in which truly humane food is difficult to obtain; on some farms and ranches, the livestock receive better care than the workers. For an illustration, look to the recent proposed law in California ensuring access to clean water and shade for farmworkers, because these weren’t available before.

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Farmworkers harvesting cucumbers. Long shifts of standing and bending are great for your body. (Photo by Flickr user Bread for the World, Creative Commons license. 

Department of Labor statistics provide some interesting insights into the world of farmworkers in the US, over 50 percent of whom are undocumented immigrants. Most are between 20 and 24, when their youth and strength can keep them going through long days on the field, and close to 60 percent don’t speak English in any capacity. This can be especially important when people are attempting to report assault, because if they can’t interact with law enforcement and officers of the court without an interpreter, they may miss opportunities for justice. That's assuming they get as far as reporting.

Most live in poor conditions, some provided by employers, and it’s not uncommon for extremely exploitative relationships to arise between farmworkers and bosses. They may be kept in company housing when not on the job, for example, while supervisors hold their identification papers, in situations that are effectively agricultural slavery. Those with guest worker visas are especially vulnerable because their employers get to decide whether they stay in the United States. Trapped under the company’s eyes at all times, they don’t have an opportunity to report crimes and seek assistance from the outside.

When you’re poor and a member of a population living on the margins, you’re extremely vulnerable to sexual assault, and you’re in a very weak position when it comes to doing something about it. This is a problem that’s hard to talk about without making it sound like hyperbole, but this quote puts the situation pretty well: “...the EEOC reports that women in California refer to the fields as 'fil de calzon' or the fields of panties because sexual harassment is so widespread. (source)” It’s also a problem that is hard to track and fight, because many women don’t report.

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Farmworkers advocating for better conditions in 1973. This has been going on a while, folks. (Photo from Washington Area Spark, Creative Commons license)

Fear of reporting sexual assault among farmworkers comes from a number of attitudes, some of which are articulated by the Southern Poverty Law Center:

For a woman, reasons for not reporting sexual violence can include the stigma related to sexual violence, fear of her partner’s response, fear of upsetting her children, pressure to be the source of emotional support and stability for her family, and concern about how she will be perceived in her community. Male victims may feel confined by gender norms that prevent them from being emotional, fear the stigma that may come from disclosing the sexual violence, and fear more harm to themselves and their families. Thus, gender plays a significant role in both men’s and women’s ability to disclose incidents of sexual violence.

There’s also, of course, the worry of being fired or deported.

On Wednesday, the House passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) 222 to 205 despite the fact that it lacked some key protections for immigrant women, just like those abused in the fields of the United States. The timing in contrast with the HRW publication was eerie; Congress sent a message that women working in the agricultural industry were not a cause for concern even as HRW indicated that sexual assault, violence, and harassment are so widespread that most interview subjects said they had personal experience with it or knew people who had.

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Field workers. (Photo by Flickr user Charlton Clemons, Creative Commons license.)

Organisations like the Farmworker Sexual Violence Technical Assistance Project work to advocate for farmworkers and create a framework for handling and pursuing reports of sexual violence in the fields. But they’re fighting a rising tide with limited support; some are funded, for example, by agencies receiving VAWA funds, the same agencies currently learning that Congress doesn’t deem immigrant women worthy of basic protections in the United States.

100 children die annually working on US farms and conservatives continue to fight ag-centred safety legislation. Hundreds of thousands of women are assaulted on US farms annually while the House says immigrant women don’t need protections addressing their uniquely vulnerable positions. Agricultural work ranks high in the list of dangerous occupations in the United States.

Buying food without suffering is extremely hard, for consumers worried about the hidden cost of what’s on their plates. The HRW report does indicate that women who work directly for farmers are less at risk of sexual violence, and consumers may want to note that small farms in general tend to have better human rights records. Seeking produce sourced from farmers’ markets and farm stands is certainly something to consider, but consumers have to be wary; the popularity of farmers’ markets has created a market for industrial produce repackaged as the product of small local farms.

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A farmers' market strawberry. Did I meet the farmer? Yes. 

What are consumers supposed to do about this? When you’re separated from the source of your food by a variety of factors, it’s difficult to determine if it comes from humane sources, or you may lack the purchasing power to lean on providers to treat their workers fairly. Calling on Congress to make sure basic workplace protections also apply to agricultural workers is certainly one form of direct action consumers can choose to take.

Another is to support activities like shareholder activism, where people buy blocks of shares in order to have a right to bring resolutions and vote at annual meetings -- if a company won’t take a message from Congress, it has to take one from its shareholders. Such measures have been used historically to improve working conditions as well as promote animal welfare in industrial agriculture settings.

Organisations like the Southern Poverty Law Center also need support to keep their operations going. They conduct investigations as well as providing support in individual cases, allowing your contributions to go further than they could on their own.

Above all, angry consumers need to let Congress know they’re not happy with conditions on US farms, to let farmworkers know consumers are concerned, to let agricultural firms know they’re being watched and to let their communities know about the injustice in their backyards.