Female workers face rape, harassment in US agriculture industry
SUNNYSIDE, Washington – Esther Abarca said the foreman drove to parts of the apple orchard that she had never seen. Deep into the farm, in what she could describe only as a “desolate place,” he parked the truck, reached over and tried to grab her.
Weeping as she told her story, Abarca said the foreman got out of the truck when she resisted his advances. He opened the side door, climbed on top of her, and began to kiss and grope her. She called for help and tried to push him away, but he got her pants halfway off.
“I kept screaming, but there was nobody there,” Abarca said.
Abarca said she kept screaming as the foreman groped her. But then, as if suddenly chastened by her crying, kicking and pushing, she said he stopped. He told her that if she didn’t tell anyone what had happened, he’d give her $3,000 for a new car.
Abarca, a mother of three, said she refused the money.
“I told him that that was the very reason why I had come here to work, that I did not need him to give me any money at all,” she said.
The foreman’s alleged first assault came in 2009, during the long days of the Yakima Valley apple harvest in central Washington. An immigrant from Mexico, Abarca was new to the Evans Fruit Co., one of the country’s largest apple producers.
Nearly four years later, Abarca’s story was the subject of a federal court case testing whether the owners of Evans Fruit looked the other way as their workers claimed they were subjected to repeated sexual violence and harassment by an orchard foreman and crew bosses.
It was a rare public accusation for an immigrant, many of whom fear retaliation and deportation if they speak up. Abarca was testifying in only the second case of a farmworker claiming sexual harassment to reach a federal court trial.
Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reveals persistent peril for women working in the food industry. An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms.
In partnership with FRONTLINE and Univision, CIR and IRP spent nearly a year reviewing thousands of pages of documents and crisscrossing the nation – from the tightly ordered orchards of the Yakima Valley to the leafy tomato fields of southern Florida – to hear workers’ stories of sexual assault.
Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being raped and assaulted, verbally and physically harassed on the job, while law enforcement has done almost nothing to prosecute potential crimes.
In virtually all of the cases reviewed, the alleged perpetrators held positions of power over the women. Despite the accusations, these supervisors have remained on the job for years without fear of arrest.
At the trial, Abarca was among more than a dozen women who had accused a foreman, Juan Marin, and a handful of crew leaders at Evans Fruit of sexually assaulting or harassing them. For her part, Abarca said she had been topping off bins with just-picked apples when the foreman called to her from his pickup. He told her to get in the truck, she testified.
Marin said he never sexually assaulted or harassed Abarca or any of the other women, and he has not been arrested or prosecuted in criminal court for the allegations.
At a federal civil trial this year, a jury found that whatever had happened at Evans Fruit, it did not create a sexually hostile work environment, which had to be established before the company could be held liable.
Government attorneys who prosecuted the civil case have requested a new trial. In court filings, they called the verdict “unmoored from the actual evidence.”
Marin, who had worked for Evans Fruit for more than three decades, said the claims are based on lies and rumors spread by “a bunch of jealous people” who are trying to win money from the company.
“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.”
Nevertheless, two complaints against Marin prompted owner Bill Evans to write him a letter in 2006, four years before Marin was fired for alleged embezzlement.
“We don’t have the time or energy to continue dealing with the problems you are bringing down on us,” the letter said. “Any further incidents or complaints of sexual harassment and you will be discharged.”
The company drafted its first sexual harassment policy in 2008.
A National Problem
Reports of harassment and sexual violence against female farmworkers span the U.S. map.
In Molalla, Ore., a worker at a tree farm accused her supervisor of repeatedly raping her over the course of several months in 2006 and 2007, often holding gardening shears to her throat. If she complained to anyone, he allegedly told her, he would fire her and kill her entire family.
The supervisor never was prosecuted, and a civil case against the tree farm was settled for $150,000 in 2011 without the company acknowledging wrongdoing. The payment went to the woman and three family members who said they were harassed or fired in retaliation.
Three hundred miles away, in Lind, Wash., an egg farm manager forced a woman working alone in a hen-laying house to routinely give him oral sex to keep her job between 2003 and 2010, according to a statement she gave to the sheriff. In an interview with the sheriff, the manager denied the accusation. He did not return calls for comment.
That case was settled for $650,000 this year – most of it to be paid to the woman and four other workers who claimed the company had fired them in retaliation for complaining. The manager no longer works at the farm.
In a case pending in Mississippi federal court, dozens of women hired to debone chickens at a poultry processing plant said they were violently groped by a supervisor between 2004 and 2008. One woman who said she was grabbed between her legs had to seek medical attention, according to court filings.
And a worker at a Salinas, Calif.-based lettuce farm accused a manager of raping her in 2006 – a charge he denied to company management, according to court documents. Maricruz Ladino sued the grower and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2010. She did not file a police report, and there was no criminal prosecution. He no longer works for the company.
“There are supervisors who try to use their power to mistreat people or to abuse them,” said Ladino, who has since left the company. “And it’s very difficult to fight against that because we are working out of necessity, because we need to provide for our families.”
Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, an employment firm that coordinates farm and seasonal employees in the Pacific Northwest, said similar problems exist in other industries, and he points to an example of workplace rape that involved a real estate company.
“Harassment occurs in agriculture,” he said, “but there is no proof that it occurs more (often) in agriculture.”
But a review of the 41 federal sexual harassment lawsuits filed against agricultural enterprises since 1998 – when the first federal lawsuit was filed against an agricultural company for failing to stop harassment or abuse – reveals a pattern of supervisors accused of preying on multiple workers.
Among these were at least 153 people who alleged workplace abuses, the vast majority by their superiors. Of the lawsuits, 7 out of 8 involved workers claiming physical harassment, assault or rape.
According to civil court documents, in nearly every case, workers made complaints to company management and, among those, 85 percent faced retaliation – such as being demoted, fired or further harassed. In their review of the federal cases, CIR and IRP could not find a single case in which the men accused of sexual assault or rape in the civil suits had been criminally prosecuted.
Keeping Their Silence
Growers and their attorneys acknowledge that there is ongoing sexual harassment but say they are powerless to act unless the women are willing to come forward. Some members of the industry are actively working to change the culture in the country’s fields, packinghouses and food-processing factories.
For government lawyer William R. Tamayo, whose father worked at sugarcane plantations in Hawaii, the first inkling of what was happening to women in America’s fields and packinghouses came when he visited with California labor advocates in the mid-1990s.
“They said farmworker women were talking about the fields as the fils de calzón, or ‘fields of panties,’ ” said Tamayo, the regional attorney in San Francisco for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which files sexual harassment lawsuits on behalf of employees, including farm and food factory workers. “They referred to the fields as the ‘green motel.’ ”
The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes. The federal government estimates that 65 percent of all sexual assault and rape victims never report the crime.
Immigrants, especially those who entered the country without authorization, are even less likely to complain, according to academic studies.
The legal research and advocacy group ASISTA surveyed more than 100 women working at Iowa meatpacking plants in 2009. An analysis of these surveys shows that 41 percent said they’d experienced unwanted touching, and about 30 percent reported receiving sexual propositions.
More than 25 percent of the women said they’d been threatened with firing or harder work if they didn’t let the aggressor have his way.
It’s a similar picture in California, where a UC Santa Cruz study of 150 female farmworkers published in 2010 found that nearly 40 percent experienced sexual harassment ranging from verbal advances to rape on the job, and 24 percent said they had experienced sexual coercion by a supervisor.
Many take sexual harassment as a job hazard, advocates said. When attorney Laura Mahr started talking to Oregon’s female farmworkers about sexual harassment and assault, some of them said, “ ‘Oh, that’s not just part of the job? You have laws about that?’ ”
“It’s an epidemic in the field,” said Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers. “It goes back to the vulnerability that women have … especially if they’re undocumented. And you know, the machismo culture of power and when you think of this type of sexual harassment or rape, it’s always about power of men over women.”
Few Complaints Make It to Court
The only federal agency actively and systematically pursuing on-the-job sexual violence and harassment cases on behalf of agricultural workers is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace.
In the past 15 years, workers have filed 1,106 sexual harassment complaints with the commission against agricultural-related industries. The allegations range from verbal harassment to rape.
Only a fraction will make it to federal court. The commission declines to pursue about 50 percent of the sexual harassment complaints across all industries for lack of substance. Another portion is settled out of court.
For the few cases in which the commission files a lawsuit in federal court – 130 cases last year out of about 11,000 sexual harassment complaints across all businesses in the U.S. – a handful will make it to trial.
Some growers said they believe the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is too adversarial and aggressive through litigation. Brendan V. Monahan, an attorney for Evans Fruit, said the commission approaches farmers as the enemy rather than trying to work constructively with them.
“The EEOC has imagined this adversarial relationship between farmers and laborers that I don’t think really exists, and they have chosen to champion labor in an imagined fight against farmers,” he said. “It should be a matter of conciliation and compliance rather than confrontation and coerced enforcement.”
But David Lopez, general counsel for the commission, disagreed and said it files cases involving “egregious cases of discrimination” that warrant civil prosecution, and he warned against painting the entire agricultural industry as bad actors.
Nevertheless, he said, “I do know that we do see very serious cases of discrimination and harassment in the agricultural industry.”
Although agriculture is America’s oldest industry, the first sexual harassment lawsuit against a grower to reach a jury trial was in 2004. The Evans Fruit trial this year was the second.
That landmark first case involved a woman who worked for California-based Harris Farms, among the largest agribusinesses in the country. She accused a supervisor of raping her three separate times after showing her he was carrying a gun. The supervisor denied it.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against Harris Farms on her behalf in 2002. After a 23-day trial, the jury found Harris Farms liable for sexual harassment and retaliation and awarded nearly $800,000 in lost wages and compensatory and punitive damages.
In a statement, CEO John Harris said the company denies any wrongdoing. The workers had a consensual relationship that the company did not know about, Harris said in the statement. He said although the jury believed the accused employee was a supervisor, “we felt he was not.”
This year, growers and labor advocates are closely watching as a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws makes its way through Congress. Proponents say the bill, if approved, could offer protections for agricultural workers to more readily report abuse on the job.
“One of the fundamental reasons we have to get comprehensive immigration reform is so we can stop the daily routine rape of women in the workplace,” said U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., a vocal proponent of an overhaul.
But some who support new immigration laws have doubts that they would curb sexual harassment in the fields.
Fazio of the Washington Farm Labor Association said workers who have been assaulted or raped already qualify for a special visa for crime victims. Providing provisional status through the bill, he said, “is not going to make a person more likely to come forward.”
The primary solution lies with employers, who must create a “culture of compliance,” he said. “They need to put systems in place.”
This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting as part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, Univision and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Watch FRONTLINE on Tuesday, June 25, at 10 p.m. ET (check local PBS listings) and Univision on Saturday, June 29, at 7 p.m. ET.
The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.