Utilizing unexpected tools to combat farmworker rape

If you haven’t seen Frontline’s Rape in the Fields, I highly recommend it — the documentary is a detailed and unforgiving look at labour abuses across the US. As the title implies, the primary subject is sexual assault of farmworkers, specifically women, and it does contain some graphic and disturbing content including discussions of rape and depictions of animal violence. The result of a lengthy investigation and interviews with scores of farmworkers, advocates, and officials, the documentary really exemplifies what Frontline is all about, and, incidentally, why retaining funding for PBS is so important, because this is exactly the kind of journalism we need.

After years of pushing the subject — I’ve been writing about farmworker rape for a number of years, and numerous outlets have covered the issue — the Frontline documentary really put it on the national stage and forced a serious conversation. California in particular was called to task on its poor protections for farmworkers, with the documentary serving to shame the state for having inadequate protections for the men and women who pick the bulk of the food we eat every day.

Many of the women working in our fields are undocumented, living under the constant threat of deportation. They get up absurdly early in the morning to get to work on time, and spend long hours working without a break, engaged in the kind of repetitive motion that gives people serious and lasting impairments — yet, while this nation is constantly discussing repetitive stress injuries and computer work, the subject of such injuries and farm labour is not aired very widely. Women in the fields also work with limited access to shade and fresh water, and with crops like strawberries and lettuce, they’re repeatedly bending and picking, bending and picking, for hours every day.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, women in the fields face an everpresent danger from supervisors, coworkers, and farm owners, who regard them not just as cheap labour, but as sexual objects available for use anytime. Rape is so pervasive in the fields that some women have expressed the genuine and honest belief that they assume rape is simply part of the job — and in a sense, they’re right, because women who resist are threatened with physical violence or deportation, or simply fired. For women desperate to retain low-paying positions because they have few alternatives and can’t afford to not work, sexual assault is, in a twisted and horrific way, a ubiquitous part of the landscape.

Farmworkers have been speaking out about the issue for decades, as have advocacy organisations who work with farm labour to improve working conditions and fight for better conditions. Farms themselves have largely ignored the problem, as have many government agencies, and the general public has remained in a state of — willful, at times — ignorance about the subject. Rape in the Fields forced that conversation’s hand, making it impossible to avoid, but one of the things about the documentary that really intrigued me was the use of unexpected tools to address the problem.

In the face of a reality where legislators and policy makers didn’t appear interested in crafting new policy to protect women and make farms safer places to work, advocates turned to other options. One such line of pursuit was the EEOC, which represents people who have experienced discrimination in the workplace. The agency, which operates on a tiny budget with a shoestring staff, has gone to bat for migrant workers where other agencies have not, creating a landscape in which justice is possible.

Many workers themselves cannot afford the cost of civil suits against employers who fail to protect them from abuse. Advocacy organisations likewise have low budgets and have to use resources wisely — and when it comes to going up against heavy hitters in the agriculture industry, they realistically don’t stand a chance. Even with pro bono work from attorneys concerned about the issue, it’s impossible to mount an effective case against a firm that can simply keep hiring aggressive attorneys to defend itself. In the case of the EEOC, though, the government agency can push through suits with the clout of the government behind it, and it’s winning cases for farmworkers.

Even the EEOC has limits, but it’s evidence of asymmetrical options for tackling farmworker sexual assault. As the agency pushes for equal opportunities free of discrimination and abuse, advocates can work on other angles to fight the issue — like integrating it into television and radio dramas to raise awareness among farmworkers that sexual assault is not okay, that there are laws in place designed to protect them, and that there are resources they can turn to for assistance. This kind of direct outreach provides an innovative way to reach people who are often isolated by circumstances — many farms try to keep advocates off their grounds, for example, and for people with undocumented immigration status, it can be frightening to approach police or government agencies for help, out of fear of la migra. 

The crisis of abuse in the fields is far from over, and as people come up with new approaches for resisting, it’s tragically and frustratingly likely that farm owners and others will come up with new tactics for evading responsibility. Rapists will rape, even with the awareness of potentially severe legal penalties, and they’ll keep coming up with tactics to fight those legal consequences. However, the increasing profile of sexual assault on farms makes it that much harder for the public to ignore, and that equals growing pressure on legislatures and government agencies to do something about it, as well as a boost in support for advocates working on the ground to help farmworkers fight back.

Image: Strawberry picking, Emily Mills, Flickr