Silenced By Status, Farm Workers Face Rape, Sexual Abuse Farm workers do backbreaking work to bring fresh produce to our tables. But one secret about life in the fields is a chilling power dynamic that can allow supervisors to sexually assault farm workers in remote orchards and packinghouses.

Silenced By Status, Farm Workers Face Rape, Sexual Abuse

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.


And I'm Audie Cornish at NPR West in California.

Farm workers in this state labor in tough conditions to bring fresh produce to the nation's tables. There is backbreaking work and low pay, but there's also a pattern of harassment. Women in the fields are especially vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances by farm supervisors. It's even worse for those who are undocumented.

Sasha Khokha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on why many farm workers who become victims are afraid to come forward.

SACHA KHOKHA, BYLINE: Even though it's a warm day outside here in California's Salinas Valley, Maricruz Ladino looks like she's going ice fishing.

MARICRUZ LADINO: (Through translator) I put on my tights, my thermal underwear, two pairs of socks.

KHOKHA: A hairnet, wool cap, big boots and snow pants, and the 40-year old farm worker with long dark hair and glamorously arched eyebrows is transformed.

LADINO: (Through translator) I look like a tamale, so many layers.


KHOKHA: She's getting ready to work a 10-hour shift in a walk-in cooler where lettuce is stored before it's shipped all over the country.

LADINO: (Through translator) And even though I'm bundled up like this, some men at work tell me: What a beautiful body you have. For me, someone who's lived through what I've lived through, it bothers me.

KHOKHA: Ladino's still visibly shaken by what happened back in 2006, when she says a farm supervisor constantly harassed her and pressured her to sleep with him.

LADINO: (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: She tried to rebuff him until one day on the way back from the fields he took her to pick up some boxes and she says he raped her.

LADINO: (Through translator) I couldn't say anything. I couldn't even scream because it was very traumatic. You don't know how to react.

KHOKHA: Like many other undocumented women, she was afraid she would be branded a troublemaker if she reported the supervisor to management.

LADINO: (Through translator) I saw my choices: I lose my job, I can't feed my family.

KHOKHA: But she says after seven months, she finally worked up the courage to lodge a complaint against the supervisor. And she was fired. With the help of a legal aid group, Ladino eventually filed a civil lawsuit against the grower. The accused supervisor denied the allegations. But the company agreed to a confidential settlement in 2010.

Ladino agreed not to tell anyone the company's name and how much money they paid her in damages. She didn't file a police report, and the supervisor never faced criminal charges or went to jail.

BILL TAMAYO: Conditions that allow sexual assault to occur all revolve around who has power.

KHOKHA: Bill Tamayo is a regional attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That's the federal agency charged with protecting workers from gender-based discrimination. He says a farm supervisor wields a lot of power.

TAMAYO: He determines who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets fired. And if you're a sexual predator, that's the ideal position to be in because you can determine whether her family eats or not.


KHOKHA: The EEOC has been reaching out to farm workers about sexual harassment with radio ads like these.


KHOKHA: Over the last 15 years, Tamayo estimates his agency has won tens of millions of dollars in back wages and damages for farm worker victims across the country. The companies involved are rarely made public unless a lawsuit is filed. And the agency doesn't have the power to bring a criminal case, that's the job of local prosecutors. In fact, a review of EEOC's federal sexual harassment lawsuits against agricultural companies shows none of the perpetrators accused in those cases have been tried in criminal court.

Meanwhile, the farm industry is trying to tackle a problem that's long been kept under wraps.

AMY WOLFE: This whole subject is about people with power using their power inappropriately to those that report to them...

KHOKHA: In California, all farms with more than 50 employees have to send their supervisors to two hours of sexual harassment training every two years. A few dozen farmers and crew supervisors, many in checked shirts and dusty cowboy boots, gathered in a Fresno hotel recently for one of those trainings.

WOLFE: Because let's be honest, we work in an industry with people who are not raising their hands to tell us there is a problem. It is not part of our workforce culture...

KHOKHA: Trainer Amy Wolfe directs Ag Safe, a California farm safety group. She says she sees a real shift in the willingness of farmers to acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment.

WOLFE: Unfortunately there is still very much a good-old-boy attitude. But I definitely see improvements. I see more farmers today asking the question, where I think 15 or 20 years ago that wasn't taking place.

KHOKHA: But not all sexual harassment training for farm employees is as thorough as this one.

LADINO: (Foreign language spoken)

KHOKHA: Back in Salinas, Maricruz Ladino says she's worked on farms where they do plenty of training about things like equipment safety. But the sexual harassment training consists of just signing a paper and then getting back to work. That, she says, isn't enough to protect the workers who pick our fruit and vegetables.

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

CORNISH: This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting and UC Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program.


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