We all can help to stop sexual harassment of immigrant workers. We have the power to demand changes to practices that endanger the immigrant workforce.
Current popular and social media attention on sexual harassment and violence toward women is both devastating and hopeful. The sharing by Hollywood actresses and actors of long-held secrets has been received by a flood of community support. While this airing of truths about actors and predatory politicians is vital, it has yet to shine a light on the sexual harassment endemic in the immigrant workforce, stories that have received scant media or public attention.
Immigrant workers are the economic powerhouses in our communities. They are the workers who harvest your fruits and vegetables, clean your offices, turn down your hotel beds, and serve and cook your food. Power and fear play a large part in victimizing all workers, but immigrant workers face even greater barriers to protecting themselves due to language, isolation and poverty. When they experience sexual harassment, they don’t have the option of a famous person to publicly shame.
The PBS Frontline documentary “Rape in the Fields” documents the stories of farmworker women victimized by their supervisors and how powerless they are to stop harassment because their supervisors hold all the control over their employment and lives. An estimated three out of four women farmworkers have been sexually harassed. Immigrant workers in the service industry endure sexual harassment all too often. Immigrant janitorial workers, the focus of PBS Frontline’s “Rape on the Nightshift,” also suffer sexual harassment.
Today’s anti-immigrant and anti-women climate adds to the vulnerability of immigrant workers. Increases in public violence and threats of deportation force many to suffer in silence. Our political environment causes even more women to hide their truths, slowing workplace reporting and feeding the cycle of violence.
Racial discrimination of this largely black and brown immigrant workforce generates scant attention by the media and our legal system. Cases of sexual harassment among immigrant workers do not make the headlines. Even when immigrants report sexual harassment and abuse, they are less likely to be believed and are not adequately compensated for the harm they suffer. In a sexual harassment case in which 14 immigrant farmworkers came forward, a Yakima jury did not believe their stories, and they lost.
#MeToo tweets only get us so far and isolate communities who have limited access to political power and cultural influence. We need our lawmakers to pass and fund laws aimed at protecting our workforce. We need a focus on prevention to treat workplace sexual harassment as an occupational health and safety issue. We need policies that mandate education and training in the workplace, especially in the agricultural and service sectors. Our legal system needs to hold companies responsible and not put victims on trial, where their backgrounds, reputations and credibility are challenged. Agricultural and service employers need to modernize their practices to include adequate training and policies that clarify reporting structures and change the culture of acceptance.
Media reports of sexual harassment afford us an important lesson about bystander intervention: Do you want to be the person who allowed this to happen? As Jane Fonda reminds us, saying and doing nothing is complicity and perpetuates this cycle of violence.
We all can help to stop sexual harassment of immigrant workers. A lot depends on us as consumers. We buy Washington apples that are grown and harvested by workers and sold worldwide. We use and enjoy hotels and restaurants that employ immigrant workers. We have the power to demand changes to practices that endanger the immigrant workforce.