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Farm Worker Harassment Draws Increased Scrutiny

caption: Farm workers picking strawberries.
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Farm workers picking strawberries.
Flickr Photo/Au Zut

In her green minivan, Angelica Villa navigates the farm roads north of Bellingham like a seasoned tour guide. She points out a cannery, a potato plant and miles of berry fields. Villa previously worked at many of these places and she rattles off story after story about harassment on the job.

“At one of the canneries, the manager stood behind me and made sexual gestures,” Villa recounts. “It was just something you had to put up with there.”

For immigrants working on farms in the Northwest, sexual harassment can come with the territory. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which handles cases of workplace harassment, has flagged agriculture as an area of growing concern with some of the most egregious abuses.

In recent years, the agency has filed several high-profile lawsuits against farm owners in Oregon and Washington. The latest targeted Evans Fruit, a huge apple grower in Eastern Washington. In April, a jury sided with the farm owners, dealing a blow to the EEOC.

This intensified focus and string of lawsuits has stirred up the farm community about a problem some people, including Angelica Villa, say plagues the Northwest’s fields and orchards. Villa works with the Bellingham-based farm worker advocacy group Community to Community and says she’s talked with countless immigrant women who battle sexual harassment in the vast agricultural industry around Lynden, Washington. Our driving tour ends at one of those women’s homes, where Lucia and her toddler son greet us at the minivan.

It’s a gorgeous spring day but Lucia ushers us inside toward a dingy bedroom. She works at the surrounding raspberry farm and she’s worried someone might see us talking. For her protection, we’re not using her real name.

“I’m scared,” Lucia chokes out in Spanish, as tears roll down her cheeks. “He said if I ever reported him that he’d tell the authorities I mistreat my kids. He said they would take my kids away.”

Lucia clings to her two-year-old son as we talk. Her older daughter is at school. We sit on the floor, near the mattresses where they all sleep. A small TV and refrigerator are tucked in the corner. A hand-painted rainbow arcs across one wall.

Lucia says her trouble with the farm foreman, who’s also Mexican, started soon after she arrived four years ago. Her boyfriend had just been deported back to Mexico and the foreman propositioned her. Lucia refused.

“I pushed him,” Lucia says. “He came and grabbed me and I pushed him. He said he decides who works here and who lives here, and that I have to show him I’m grateful. I said no, I’m not like that.”

Lucia told the farm owner what happened and the foreman was suspended, just for a few days. She’s tried to switch jobs but the raspberry work offers better hours, pay and housing.

“I don’t want to go back there but I have to work to support my kids,” Lucia explains. The sexual comments and insults have never stopped.

Lucia says the foreman has even waited outside her house, throwing bottles and demanding money. She says he’s threatened to kill her or call immigration authorities if she ever complains again. Lucia’s living in the US illegally.

Fighting back tears, Lucia can barely talk about another incident that haunts her. A few years ago, while walking home from the fields, she was attacked and raped by a man she didn’t know. The boy sitting on her lap is the result.

Federal Lawsuits Target Northwest Agriculture

“We're really [just] scratching the surface of a problem I think runs deep and wide,” says Bill Tamayo, regional attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His district includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and other western states.

Tamayo says sexual harassment happens in all industries, but the cases he sees against farm workers tend to be among the most brutal.

“Our cases have also included not just rape but also threats of violence, use of guns, use of knives or other sharp weapons, threats to kill witnesses including family members,” Tamayo says. “You don’t usually see that in other industries. Somehow, it just seems to be more pronounced in our agricultural cases.”

Here in the Northwest, Tamayo is a driving force against farm worker harassment. In recent years, he’s helped bring several lawsuits against farm owners and growers in the Northwest. Typically, employers opt to settle these cases rather than face a jury trial. But in the recent case against Evans Fruit, one of the country’s largest apple growers, the farm owners fought back and won.

The EEOC recently updated its strategic plan, listing cases involving immigrants and migrant workers as a top priority. Tamayo says agriculture can be a hot spot for sexual harassment because there’s such an imbalance of power between workers and managers.

“The predator is usually someone in management, maybe the manager of a farm or high-ranking supervisor, who has almost unfettered discretion over who gets hired and who gets fired and controls everything about the conditions of work,” Tamayo explains. “The owner tends to be far way, not anywhere near the ranch where the assaults are happening.”

To create a safer workplace, Tamayo says farm employers need to step in to help change the culture.

Farm Owners Take Notice

“The agricultural employers are stepping up to the plate,” says Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association in Olympia. Its member base includes hundreds of farm owners who turn to the WFLA for help with farm labor hiring and other human resource services.

Fazio’s watched the EEOC cases ripple through the agricultural community. The lawsuits have put some employers on higher alert, as they increasingly rely on managers who are bilingual, Latino and possibly unfamiliar with US anti-discrimination laws.

“I don’t want to sound politically incorrect but discrimination is just something that happens in the Mexican culture,” Fazio says in a hushed tone. “You can go to Mexico right now and see ads in the paper that say, you know, ‘we don’t hire pregnant women.’ We have to remind them that they’re working in our culture.”

Fazio’s association has teamed up with the EEOC to offer harassment prevention training for farm managers. About 300 people turned out this year. For many, it was their first lesson ever on this topic. Fazio’s glad to have the EEOC on board for the trainings, but he’d like to them back off on the lawsuits.

“They can literally put a person out of business,” Fazio says. “A lot of times you hear from employers, you know, small businesses, ‘I’ve got to settle even though I didn’t do anything wrong.’”

Fazio thinks mediation can be a better way to resolve worker complaints, coupled with more training for managers to know the rules and for workers to know their rights.

As we leave Lucia’s home, her son runs outside to kick around a soccer ball with his uncle. The boy clambers around a rusty swing set in his Spider-Man slippers. Lucia looks on with pride.

Off in the distance, the raspberries will ripen in few months, and Lucia will gather up her courage and head back out to the fields.

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