Sexual Assault And Farmworkers

Nov 5, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The reporting on sexual harassment allegations over the last few weeks has focused on actors in Hollywood and journalists in the media. But it is economically disadvantaged women who are often the most vulnerable to harassment and assault. It's particularly pervasive for female farmworkers. Situations can range from groping and propositions all the way to systemic rape. And it often all goes unseen and unreported. Rosalinda Guillen is a longtime farmworkers' rights advocate and was herself a farm worker. She says this has long been a problem.

ROSALINDA GUILLEN: Well, I think it's historic. I mean, as a - growing up in a farmworker family, I'm the oldest of eight, started working in the fields myself when I was 10 years old and have been organizing for over 31 years. And if you look at the history of the farmworker community and the farmworker labor force in agriculture, this has always been a problem. This is not new for us. And it's something that we've talked about for many years. There are many organizations that have tried to change the system. But unfortunately, in the agricultural industry, especially in the large agricultural corporate farms, if women complain or there's even an issue of women possibly filing a lawsuit or complaining about harassment, the retaliation that they get from that is usually losing their jobs. And farmworkers being one of the poorest workforce in the nation - that is just not acceptable, especially when that last paycheck means your rent, your grocery bill or clothes or needs that your children have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I imagine, also, there is another issue at play which is that, often, many family members work for the same employer. So it affects the whole family.

GUILLEN: That is exactly true. There have been women that have endured sexual harassment for years because they do not want to complain, knowing that if they do, that same supervisor will take action or retaliate against the family. Even if they fire her, they take retaliation against the family. And they do not want to have their family lose their jobs. I mean, it's their livelihood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were a migrant farmworker. You started when you were 10 years old. Were you aware or subject to harassment then?

GUILLEN: I wasn't personally. I know that a lot of women were. What I want to say about that is that as a farmworker woman working in the fields, part of our culture in the workplace is actually constantly being vigilant and taking care of ourselves and paying attention to what's going on around us to protect ourselves from sexual harassment. The other issue I want to mention is that in many areas, a lot of farmworkers have to live in farm labor camps, which are these housing facilities that are provided by the employer on the land...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The kind of...

GUILLEN: ...Of the employer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. They're kind of barracks, right? This sort of - people don't have privacy.

GUILLEN: No privacy. In some cases, they actually look like slave cabins. I mean, they're small. They're wooden shacks. Many of them - in fact, I have not seen one. They do not have bathrooms in the living facility itself. If you don't have a bathroom in your home or in your living space, you have to walk, in some cases, quite a ways to get to the toilet, to get to a shower. And this creates another vulnerability for women and something that they always have to be careful of, especially young girls.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What needs to happen, in your view?

GUILLEN: Oh. I sigh because it's been such a long road. I think the best way for women to protect themselves - the best way that I've seen in the many years that I've organized has actually been a union contract. And that's because a union contract has a grievance process that guarantees that there will be no retaliation, that provides a means of justice and fairness and a response that's speedy, that addresses the issue, that allows farmworkers to actually have abusive supervisors fired and go back to work and be safe. If there's no way for an abuser to be actually punished for what he's doing to the women in the workplace, then it doesn't work. It doesn't work. And women are not going to complain. They're not going to feel safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rosalinda Guillen, co-founder and director of Community to Community in Washington state. Thank you very much for your time.

GUILLEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.