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Sexual Harassment of Female Farmworkers


In the United States, there are an estimated 2.4 million farmworkers laboring on farms and ranches, with 25.5 percent of the workers being women.

Approximately 540,000 female farmworkers cultivate and harvest crops and raise and tend to livestock across the country. Women are an increasing portion of the agricultural workforce, with the share of female farmworkers rising from 18.6 percent in 2009 to 25.5 percent in 2018. In a recent study, 80 percent of women farmworkers experienced sexual harassment, compared to an estimated 38 percent of women across all industries., From this data, it can be concluded that without substantial intervention, sexual harassment will become more prevalent. Of farmworkers who have reported sexual violence, 97 percent also reported experiencing gender harassment from supervisors and coworkers, 53 percent experienced unwanted sexual attention, and 24 experienced sexual coercion. However, reliable figures on sexual harassment of female farmworkers are difficult to find because of the cultural, legal, and economic pressures on  victims. 

The majority of farmworkers self-identify as Hispanic, with 65 percent identifying as Mexican, 9 percent as Mexican-American, and the remaining 9 percent as Chicano, Puerto Rican, or other Hispanic.  Indigenous women make up a significant portion of the Latin-American workers. They are frequently discriminated against, their complaints are often not taken seriously, they are reluctant to report harassment because of cultural stigma, and they face discrimination by mestizo and non-indigenous workers. Moreover, Latina women across industries are less likely to seek out formal avenues to address sexual abuse such as medical care, police involvement, social services, restraining orders, or criminal charges. Over 48 percent of farmworkers lack authorization to work in the U.S., though the actual number may be higher., The vast majority of foreign-born respondents to a National Agricultural Workers Survey said that they had been in the United States at least 10 years, and only 3 percent of farmworkers arrived in the US in a year or less before the survey. Despite protection against deportation through U-visas, fear of deportation or loss of legal residency status dissuade female immigrant farmworkers from coming forward about sexual harassment incidents. Furthermore, women workers who speak up may be threatened with retaliation involving threats to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement or to revoke temporary work visas. This fear is not unfounded as agricultural industry complaints filed by the EEOC between 1988 and 2012 included claims of retaliation. 

The median yearly income for farm workers is $25,840, and is likely less for female workers. Moreover, 33 percent of farmworkers that have family incomes below poverty level and typically have low access to health care. Desperation to maintain employment creates an unsafe working environment where workers are not free to report harassment. The average education of farmworkers is equivalent to eighth-grade. This, combined with lower English fluency, decreases the accessibility of sexual harassment information for farmworkers. Because a large portion of farmworkers are from Spanish speaking countries, low English fluency is prevalent; it can prevent  workers from understanding their rights and reporting sexual harassment. Twenty-seven  percent of farmworkers can speak no English at all and 31 percent speak English ‘well.’ Supervisors and employers often lack fluency in Spanish, worsening language barriers, and thus barriers to sexual harassment intervention. 

Though reforms have been made in some states, current laws do not sufficiently protect farmworkers from sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shields employers of fewer than 15 workers as well as employers of independent contracters from liability for failing to prevent, address, or remedy sexual harassment. The extension of the Violence Against Women Act in 2019 provides assistance for victims of sexual harassment through self-petition programs and requires states to enforce laws issued in another state. California, Connecticut, and Maine have instituted laws requiring sexual harassment training for supervisors. One of the most significant state laws is the New York Workers Bill of Rights, passed in 2010, which created protection under New York State Human Rights Law and in it, a special cause of action for the domestic workers who face sexual or racial  harassment. California passed legislation in 2014 which specifically protects female farmworkers, helping the nearly 700,000 farmworkers in the United State’s largest state agricultural economy., However, state laws are lacking in regard to this issue, as cases of sexual harassment have been reported by farmworkers across the country. For example, in 2015, several Florida farmworkers successfully sued their employer for 

$17 million for sexual abuse and retaliation against victims. Cases of sexual harassment and abuse against farmwokrers have been reported in nearly every state including Texas, Arizona, and Oregon.

Hired Farmworkers and Female Farmworkers by Census Division, 2018

RegionNumber of Farmworkers (Thousands)Estimated Number  Female Farm Laborers (Thousands) 
Pacific (WA, OR, CA, AK, HI)429109.4
East North Central (WI, MI, IL, IN, OH)146 37.2
Mountain  (MT, ID, WY, NV, UT, CO, AZ, NM)13233.7
South Atlantic (WV, VA, NC, SC, GA, FL, DE, MD, DC)16943.1
West North Central (ND, SD, NE, KS, MN, IA, MO)13033.2
West South Central (OK, AR, TX, LA)8722.2
Middle Atlantic (NY, PA, NJ)7619.4
East South Central  (KY, TN, MS, AL)4411.2
New England (VT, NH, ME, MA, RI, CT)256.4

Both public and private sectors need to reform sexual assault and harassment policies. By implementing training for management, farms can reduce cases of sexual assault and harassment and liability for cases. This training should require Spanish language resources to be available in order for farmworkers to understand their rights and available support mechanisms. The Fair Food Program’s Milk with Dignity Program in Vermont and other independent organizations have put in place reporting channels, educational services, and farm monitoring mechanisms for sexual harassment with a large degree of success.,  As is now required under California state law, sexual harassment training should be required at all farms. Existing sexual harassment laws must be expanded to include randomized inspections and to close ‘consent’ loopholes for management and foremen. Lastly, further studies are required to assess the scope of the problem. Because many farmworkers are seasonal, temporary, or migrant workers, around half of whom have no work authorization, there has been difficulty collecting accurate data to create effective policy. 

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