“We Thought It was Normal That You Had to Have Sex to Keep Your Job”
- by s.e. smith
- March 12, 2013
What price are you willing to pay for cheap produce? How about a culture of sexual assault and rape so widespread that one female farmworker starkly said that “We thought it was normal in the U.S. that you had to have sex to keep your job.”
For the more than 400,000 immigrant women working on farms and in meat-packing plants and other agricultural processing facilities across the U.S., sexual assault is a daily part of the job, as are poor working conditions like limited access to toilets, shade, fresh water and food. Most of these workers are making less than minimum wage, which is still more than they can earn at home, and they live in a constant fear of deportation, a fear exploited by the men who assault them.
In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a detailed study looking at the conditions endured by immigrant women on U.S. farms. What they found was shocking and revolting. Many survey respondents reported an atmosphere of repeat rape and sexual assault, citing some farms as so bad that they’d acquired biting nicknames like “field of panties” or “the Green Motel” (a reference to being raped between row crops). For all the cheap produce these farms churned out for eager U.S. consumers, workers routinely suffered in a work environment where it was difficult to seek legal redress, and not much has changed since 2010.
The problem for workers is that reporting crimes comes with the embedded threat of deportation. This is used as a tool for intimidation by supervisors and others who sexually harass, molest and rape workers, suggesting that if they tell anyone, they’ll be sent out of the country. Now that crossing the border is much more difficult and the job situation in Central and South America is even more dire, deportation is a particularly serious threat — and many women are not aware that they may be entitled to consideration under a visa program for victims of violence and sexual assault.
If workers do manage to find an advocacy group or similar organization, communication can be a barrier. Many immigrant farmworkers are Spanish-speaking and don’t speak any English at all, which limits their options, and some speak only indigenous languages, offering even fewer choices for finding support. If they choose to come forward with reports of sexual assault, immigration services often become involved as translators, even if local law enforcement have no intent of trying to deport them, and they can become trapped in a request for identification that turns a sexual assault report into a detention and deportation case.
Some law enforcement agencies are trying different approaches to the situation, focusing on getting help for victims and taking their claims seriously. For farmworkers in regions covered by such compassionate law enforcement, rape doesn’t have to end in silence or deportation, but it can be difficult to know what kind of treatment will be offered ahead of time unless advocates can reach potential victims and interact with them, something made difficult by tactics like forcing workers to stay in company housing or threatening workers with deportation if they’re seen talking with people from advocacy groups.
The epidemic of sexual assault staining the agriculture industry of the U.S. is something that all residents should be ashamed of, and it’s something that requires urgent action. These cases need to be pursued seriously and without the threat of deportation, and the U.S. needs immediate comprehensive immigration reform so that immigrant women won’t be viewed as such easy targets.