An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms, and many of them face harassment and abuse.
SALINAS, Calif. — Sexually abused in a field by her supervisor, a woman and her four-year legal battle against her former employer highlights the PBS Frontline documentary Rape in the Fields that airs Tuesday night.
But Maricruz Ladino’s story is just one of thousands among more than half a million undocumented women working each day in America’s fields.
Ominously, the Lowell Bergman documentary, also produced by Univision News, begins, “This is a story about what many women go through to keep those jobs and food on the table.”
Ladino was an 18-year veteran of the fields of Monterey County when one day her Anthony Smith Co. supervisor took her to a remote location and sexually assaulted her. Like many undocumented workers, she feared for her job and kept her mouth shut.
“If I said anything I would lose my job,” she says in the documentary. “I couldn’t lose my job because I was the one taking care of my daughters.”
Although Bergman and photographer Andrés Cediel declined to identify Ladino’s previous employer, citing an agreement struck with Ladino before the interview, an archived story from The Monterey County Herald shows Ladino ensconced in a legal battle with Anthony Smith Co. in 2009. The battle surrounded a year of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of her supervisor.
A California Rural Legal Assistance lawyer for Ladino and officials with Anthony Smith Co. did not return phone calls.
Her situation echoes that of many women in similar situations who work in what Bill Tamayo of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes as “the field of panties” and “the green motel.”
“It was the classic quid pro quo,” he said.
“If I said anything, I would lose my job. I couldn’t lose my job because I was the one taking care of my daughters.”
— Maricruz Ladino, Salinas, Calif.
In the 51-minute documentary PBS delves into landmark cases against Harris Farms in Fresno County, Calif.; Evans Fruit in eastern Washington; and DeCoster Farms in Iowa. In some cases, the women were awarded damages; in others their voices fell on deaf ears.
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% of all sexual assault and rape victims never report the crime.
An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms. Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, a yearlong investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reveals persistent peril for women working in the food industry.
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.
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.
According to civil court documents, in nearly every case, workers made complaints to company management and, among those, 85% faced retaliation such as being demoted, fired or further harassed. In their review, Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program could not find a single case in which the men accused of sexual assault or rape in the civil suits had been criminally prosecuted.
For the women, fear is the common theme.
Despite their victimization, these women still fear deportation, explained Sonia Parras, a lawyer whose name has become synonymous with deportation defense.
A Spanish immigrant herself, Parras was astounded at the magnitude of the abuse she encountered in conversations with women from DeCoster Farms and a Postville, Iowa, meatpacking plant.
“This was the land of the dreams,” she said. “This wasn’t supposed to be happening here like this.”
The DeCoster Farms family ultimately paid out $1.5 million to the women alleging sexual abuse. Representatives of the family still claim the company’s innocence.
Many take sexual harassment as a job hazard, advocates said.
When lawyer 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?’ ”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing civil rights laws in the workplace, is the only federal agency that pursues on-the-job sexual violence and harassment cases.
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% 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.
For Ladino, it was four long years before she agreed to settle with her previous employer, but that doesn’t mean the case is, or will ever be, closed for her.
“I was heard. That’s why I think there was justice,” she said. “But a part of me died and no can ever give that back to me.”
From USA Today, Contributing: Bernice Yeung and Grace Rubenstein, The Center for Investigative Reporting. (Photo: Courtesy of Andrés Cediel)