Prosecuting Sexual Harassment on Calif. Farms

Sexual harassment of female farm workers in California is gaining attention more attention in recent years. In the past, women desperate to keep their jobs didn't report harassment or assault by their supervisors in the fields. But now, more victims are coming forward and the federal government is offering help. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports.

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Working in the fields is often difficult backbreaking work. For women, there are other risks some female farm workers in California are starting to speak out about sexual harassment and assault.

They're being helped by an unlikely pair a farm worker who, says she was raped and a government lawyer, from member station KQED Sasha Khokha reports.

SASHA KHOKHA reporting:

Olivia Tamayo(ph) has spent more than 30 years picking and weeding under the hot central valley sun. She came to the US from Mexico with her husband, they both found jobs at Harris Farms, one of the nation's largest agricultural companies. But Tamayo's dream of a better life in the U.S. was shattered when her supervisor began to make suggestive comments and harass her on a daily basis. One day he offered her a ride to a field and instead drove her to an isolated almond orchard.

Ms. OLIVIA TAMAYO (Farm Worker): (Through Translator) That's where he abused me. That was the first time with threats - he showed me a pistol and did what he wanted with me and he threatened me. He told me not to tell my husband.

KHOKHA: Tamayo says the supervisor also a Mexican immigrant raped her three times between 1993 and 1994.

Ms. TAMAYO: (Through Translation) He said, that I belonged to him and he was never going to leave me in peace. He said, that since he met me, he'd always been attracted to me.

KHOKHA: Without telling her husband why, Tamayo tried to make sure she didn't come and go from the fields alone. The harassment continued five years later when the man punched her in the middle of a tomato field, Olivia Tamayo found the strength to report him to the company, she says her bosses wouldn't believe her.

Ms. TAMAYO: (Through Translation) They ignored me, I don't think they did the right thing. Everything stayed the same, he stayed working in the company and the only thing I felt was bad, because I felt like as woman there was no help of any kind for me.

KHOKHA: But a local farm worker women's organization referred Tamayo to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. And last year, a jury awarded her more than $1 million in damages and lost wages. The ruling affirmed that farmers like all employers are obligated by the civil rights act to protect their employees from sexual harassment.

Mr. BILL TAMAYO (Attorney, EEOC): The message was that a farm worker could stand up against a major company and assert her civil rights.

KHOKHA: That's EEOC Attorney Bill Tamayo - no relation to Olivia Tamayo.

Mr. TAMAYO: And that's radical that farm worker immigrant women particular who don't speak English or very limited English speaking would be able to take on a big company and win.

KHOKHA: The EEOC has taken on a dozen such cases since Bill Tamayo became Regional Attorney for the San Francisco District Office. One of his goals was to figure out how to address problems in agriculture, one of California's largest employers. When Attorney Tamayo met with farm worker groups, they said the biggest problem wasn't racial - but gender discrimination.

Mr. TAMAYO: Because there were stories and reports of women being raped in the fields being constantly sexually harassed by supervisors or having to have sex with supervisors in order to get a job or to keep a job or to get a promotion. And I felt like if anything that was going to be a top priority, because these were some of the most vulnerable workers in the country. And this was some of the most egregious discrimination that could occur.

KHOKHA: The EEOC challenge is to inform workers they're protected from sexual harassment even if they don't have immigration papers. No one knows how many women are harassed in the fields each year, and it's tough to get them to come forward if they aren't legal residents. The EEOC distributes Spanish language comic books that explain what sexual harassment means and how to make a complaint.

Meanwhile, California's largest farm organization says its members stand firmly, against any kind of harassment or discrimination. Ann Schmidt-Fogarty is a spokeswoman for the California Farm Bureau.

Ms. ANN SCHMIDT-FOGARTY(Spokeswoman for California Farm Bureau): Is agriculture a perfect place right now? There's probably a lot of room for improvements and we're working on it. We believe those who perform sexual harassment should be penalized to the fullest extent.

KHOKHA: In Olivia Tamayo's case, Harris Farms has revised it's sexual harassment policy, and established a confidential complaint hotline, but the company still claims Olivia Tamayo was in a consensual relationship with her supervisor. It has appealed the settlement, so seven years after filing her complaint with the EEOC Tamayo is still waiting for the money she was awarded by the jury.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha in Fresno.

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