Shedding Light on Sexual Violence Against Farmworkers in the US

Sexual violence and sexual harassment are not limited to certain socioeconomic classes, races, or even sexes, but there are few people more vulnerable to these crimes than immigrant workers. And while advocates have released many reports on labor rights violations against farmworkers, in the United States and elsewhere, very few have looked at issues of sexual violence against farmworkers. It’s a sensitive subject that survivors are often reluctant to discuss, rendering it difficult to document in traditional reports. Indeed, when I was researching the situation of farmworkers in South Africa last year, advocates flagged sexual violence as a major issue facing farmworkers and farm dwellers. Yet no one ever told me firsthand about sexual violence.

Last week, however, Human Rights Watch released a groundbreaking report on the vulnerability of immigrant farmworkers in the United States to sexual violence and sexual harassment. The findings are disturbing. Farmworkers described “rape, stalking, unwanted touching, exhibitionism, or vulgar and obscene language” by people in positions of power. These were not isolated incidents:  according to the HRW press release, most farmworkers interviewed either had experienced such violations or knew people who had. Laws have failed to protect workers adequately.

I asked Grace Meng, the author of the report, a few questions about her research and the role of the law in protecting workers.

In the course of your research, did you find anything that surprised you about the situation of women farmworkers in the United States?
To be honest, the fact that they are experiencing sexual harassment and sexual violence was genuinely a surprise to me. I knew that farm work was hard and dangerous but I didn’t imagine that this was one of the dangers. When I found out more about the power dynamics, it made a lot of sense. One of the reasons we made the decision to use the term sexual harassment and sexual violence throughout the report was because for white-collar workers, the term is sometimes used as a joke … it’s easy to forget that the factors that can make people vulnerable are so present in low-income work, especially work done by unauthorized immigrants. And so we really wanted to be clear … just how serious of an issue this is.

All workers are entitled to the same legal protections in the United States, regardless of their immigration status. So why doesn’t existing legislation adequately protect women farmworkers?
Human rights law is clear that it is not enough to just have a law, but people need to be able to get meaningful protection from that law. When the State reinforces barriers and it’s not possible for people to get their rights, that’s a problem.

If Congress passed the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization bill, what impact would it have on the situation of immigrant women farmworkers?
In terms of specific provisions, the Senate version would modestly improve things and have certain benefits for women. The House version in some ways makes protections for women so much worse than they are right now. It’s not that the Senate version would make things that much better, but the House version would make it so much more difficult.

In general, what’s really important is for Congress to send a clear message that when they talk about preventing violence against women, they mean violence against all women regardless of their immigration status.

This is the second report that HRW has released since 2010 on rights abuses against farmworkers in the United States. Why do you think the government is failing to protect the rights of those who feed us?
A huge factor is that the people who do this work, who are willing to work long hours at low wages, are often people who are unauthorized. And even when they are authorized, they often don’t have much choice in jobs or political power. I think that, historically, people have analyzed why it is that some groups were left out of New Deal protections. But in general, there are clearly systemic reasons that allow abuses to occur against farmworkers.

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