Female migrant workers form a group of super exploitable labor. Many women have families that are dependent upon their financial contributions. Their legal status and their gender combine to make them vulnerable. In a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1993, 90% of the female farm workers said that sexual harassment is a serious problem. Employers are able to use their legal status, lack of English skills, an unfamiliarity/ fear of the justice system to leverage sexual favors. If women refuse to submit to sexual advances they are forcibly raped. According to the Los Angeles Times, workers refer to work sites as “field of panties” because of the frequent occurrence of sexual assaults.
Olivia Tamayo was raped three times by her employer over the course of six years. Her status as victim/survivor is not unique to women working in the fields. What makes her unique is her 2005 victory in court. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Tamayo, of LeMoore, Calif., was the first migrant farmworker to prevail in a federal jury trial against her employer for sexual harassment. She first complained to her employer but received no protection. She then sued Harris Farms with the help of the EEOC, and in January 2005 a jury awarded her $1 million. The settlement was recently upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
While there is reason to celebrate this victory against exploitation, there is still much work that needs to be done. Workers need to be able to feel free to report abuses without being subject to deportation. As long as their status as citizens hangs over their heads, women will be afraid to report incidents of rape, violence and threats to the authorities. Regulation of this industry needs to be increased, and a gender specific committee needs to be formulated to deal with issues specific to vulnerable female migrant workers.
Some women have resorted to wearing loose clothing in an attempt to hide their gender. No one should be subjected to rape to achieve subsistence for themselves and their loved ones. It is the dirty secret of the agriculture industry. Often we consume products without knowing their true cost. If we stop and think at all, it is usually about the economic exploitation that workers undergo so that we may consume at relatively cheap prices. What is never factored into the equation is the human cost. Tamayo represents one of many who has been violated. Agribusiness needs to be held accountable for the women that it has treated as prey. One rape, is one rape too many.