After #MeToo, This Group Has Nearly Erased Sexual Harassment in Farm Fields

January 27, 2021
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Nely Rodríguez stands in front of 43 farmworkers and supervisors who sit side by side at picnic tables wearing various protective workwear—hats, ski masks, bandanas, socks as sleeves.

Rodríguez, a member and worker-leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), points to a drawing of a female farmworker bent over picking tomatoes while a male supervisor stands over her saying, “¡Mamacita, qué rico te vez!” or “Hot momma, you look so sexy!”

“What should you do if this happens to one of your compañeras?” she asks, speaking with warmth and dignified confidence. A few workers laugh, others yell in collective response, “Report it!”

It’s June 2019, and Rodríguez, 53, is in the Sea Islands of South Carolina at Lipman Family Farms, America’s largest field tomato grower and one of the country’s largest agricultural employers. Here, orderly rows of tomato plants coexist next to old-growth jungle with oaks and Spanish moss. Five hundred men and women are harvesting crops across Lipman’s eight farms in this St. Helena Island site—one of more than 30 Lipman locations in the U.S.

Back in 2011, Lipman was one of the first growers to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), a worker-led human-rights initiative run by CIW. The FFP is now on 27 farms, but, as an early signer, Lipman was instrumental in getting other industrial tomato producers to participate in the program in order to gain the same access to participating buyers, which today include 14 U.S. corporate retailers—grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and institutional food providers including Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Compass North America. By joining the FFP, growers agree to a code of conduct that promises that fields will be free of sexual harassment and assault, among other fundamental human rights.

While a wide range of industries responded to the #MeToo movement by setting new standards and creating new protocols to prevent sexual harassment, that hasn’t been the case in agriculture. After the movement erupted, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, saw web traffic for sexual harassment-related searches more than double between 2017 and 2018, as individuals and employers sought information to deal with workplace harassment.

But in agriculture, forestry, and fishing there were fewer reports than before. Victims everywhere receive messages to remain quiet, but, according to Anna Park, EEOC’s L.A. District Regional Attorney, this silence has been especially intense in farm fields. “We don’t see the floodgates from the people who are most affected,” said Park, who was featured in PBS Frontline’s seminal documentary, “Rape in the Fields.” “I’m not sure that #MeToo has trickled down to low-wage earners.”

When farmworkers have the opportunity to transform their work culture on their own terms, they seize it.

And yet, Rodríguez and others working with the Fair Food Program have shown that the opposite is possible: When farmworkers have the opportunity to transform their work culture on their own terms, they seize it. CIW farmworkers have devised a unique mix of education, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms that prevent—not just remedy—sexual violence at work.

A Dark History of Harassment

In October 1999, a road patrol officer was dispatched to a farm labor trailer camp. The incident report described how Diego Muriel, a supervisor at the farm labor contract company, had entered the home of Martin Vasco, woken him up, and demanded he get to work. Vasco responded that he couldn’t—he was sick and on medication.

According to the report, Muriel then kicked Vasco on the back of his legs and threatened to hit him with a bottle if he didn’t pay him. Muriel was said to have Mafia connections and trafficked workers to and within the U.S., where he held them in debt peonage. Muriel attempted to take Vasco’s entire check every payday, claiming Vasco owed him $1,300, leaving Vasco with no money for food.

“It is possible that Vasco’s life might be in danger for calling the police,” the report continued. Vasco then dropped the charges for fear of retaliation.

A detective was notified of Vasco’s case, but no action was taken. Muriel’s employer, whose housing supervisor was made aware of the situation by the officer who responded to the call, didn’t take action either.

“The tools, standards, and processes of the legal system don’t work for people in migrant labor,” said James Wheaton, a public interest and civil rights attorney with the First Amendment Project. Farm labor contractors often wield immense power over workers’ lives—hiring, exploiting, and firing them at will—in an environment characterized by intimidation and terror. Without a grievance mechanism that protects victims from retaliation, workers like Vasco remain in the shadows. This lack of response to mistreatment is common in U.S. agriculture, notorious for its longstanding culture of impunity.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and Muriel’s story is even darker than the raw violence that the police report revealed. Agriculture’s weak regulatory environment has meant that sexual abuse is also often present alongside other forms of violence—it’s just harder to see.

In Muriel’s case, only one legal report was ever filed. But 14 years later, the Fair Food Program uncovered scores of testimonies by workers who hadn’t pursued charges about Muriel’s crimes—including unchecked sexual harassment and assault.

Muriel would “rub against” female workers as he walked the fields, according to reported testimonies of workers interviewed by the program’s third-party monitoring body. According to the report, he would “stare at women” for long periods of time, gift them extra piece-rate tickets (payment per amount harvested) “so they would let him touch them,” and let himself into their bedrooms while they slept. As the report describes, he took a 16-year-old to a motel for three days only to release her when the girl’s father “put a gun to his head.” And according to the report, Muriel then paid this statutory rape victim, who became pregnant, to disappear. A male worker said that Muriel told him, “All the women that work in the field, married or single, I have taken advantage of them.” Another male farmworker confided, “Most women are afraid of losing their jobs and won’t speak up.”

Sexual abuse is endemic in any degenerated labor landscape, explained Ambassador Luis C. deBaca, former director of the Office for Sex Offender Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking during the Obama Administration. “Anytime you have people under the control of their bosses, there will end up being sexual manifestations of that power differential,” deBaca said, noting that the secretive, sensitive, and stigmatized nature of sexual violence—which impacts both men and women—makes it hard to uncover. Because of the nature of these crimes, there are almost never eyewitnesses, and victims are nearly always reticent to speak out.

Education Comes First

Back at Lipman Family Farms, Rodríguez explained that the program works because workers are empowered to monitor their own rights. This shifts the culture away from secrecy. The first step in doing so: education. And FFP education sessions are nothing like boilerplate anti-sexual harassment tutorials.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers runs live, interactive, peer-to-peer trainings that use theater, artwork, and real situations to teach workers about their rights. Since the FFP started, CIW has conducted 775 in-person sessions that have educated more than 60,000 workers across seven East Coast states. Two Lipman human resources representatives, whose bright orange shirts gave a pop of color in the earth-toned landscape, were there that day to demonstrate the farm’s public support of the program.

Workers and supervisors at a Fair Food Program education session

Workers and supervisors at a Fair Food Program education session

At CIW’s education session, some workers and supervisors were unenthusiastic about participating in the program. But, as Rodríguez sees it, the education still works. The seasonal repetition is important. Not all workers file reports right away, but over time, they get familiar with the process, shed self-blame as victims, and embrace new norms.

Under the FFP, workers (and supervisors and growers) are encouraged to file complaints through any of the program’s multiple channels, and many are about more mundane problems like payments and disagreements. But sexual assault and harassment are perennial issues. Last year, there was a small upward spike in sexual harassment complaints by people working for farms that signed onto the FFP—11 total. Five supervisors were terminated and banned from farms in the program, one received a final warning, and others were disciplined and retrained. As the culture of reporting takes off, it’s possible that more people have become comfortable speaking up.

For example, in 2018, nearly 70 percent of sexual harassment complaints in the program were from Haitian workers. Although they represented less than 20 percent of fieldworkers, the Haitians were new to the program and so only recently educated about their rights. The way Rodríguez sees it, other workers’ successful reporting of problems helped Haitian workers come forward.

The FFP has begun to create a culture of reporting problems through vigilantly protecting workers from retaliation through legally-binding agreements with real economic consequences for growers. The real threat of withholding corporate sales acts as the hammer in enforcement of the FFP’s Code.

“Teaching about sexual harassment is an awkward process,” Rodríguez explained. It’s often not addressed in workers’ home countries, so sessions are up against deep cultural notions about masculinity and authority.

A survivor herself, Rodríguez recounted experiences laboring under supervisors who brandished pistols in the fields. Growing up in Mexico, her family didn’t speak openly about sexual harassment. All that she knows about how to constructively deal with it, she said, she’s learned from CIW. Rodríguez is also a member of the organization’s women’s group, co-hosts a women’s radio show on CIW’s community station, and acted in a first-of-its-kind anti-sexual harassment video for the agricultural industry made by and starring farmworkers.

“We’re there to make sure that workers have the knowledge to end what was an ugly situation for many years for many people,” Rodríguez said. “It’s no longer easy to stay quiet or watch what’s happening to a woman and not do anything.”

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