California farmworker Maricruz Ladino said that when supervisors in the agricultural industry abuse their workers, “it’s very difficult to fight against that because we are working out of necessity, because we need to provide for our families.”
RIF - Maricruz sig. image photo

California farmworker Maricruz Ladino said that when supervisors in the agricultural industry abuse their workers, “it’s very difficult to fight against that because we are working out of necessity, because we need to provide for our families.”Andres Cediel/Investigative Reporting Program

Even in the California Central Valley’s deepest summer heat, female farmworkers harvesting tomatoes cover their faces with bandannas and don long-sleeved sweatshirts with the hoods cinched tight.

It’s a work uniform that protects against the sun. But it’s also a way, the workers say, to ward off uninvited flirting, unwanted touching – or worse – from supervisors.

Now, the women might be getting more official help. Since the Rape in the Fields investigation revealed the persistent problem of sexual abuse of farmworkers last summer, legislators, community organizations, academic institutions and growers have jump-started new projects to tackle sexual harassment and abuse in the agricultural industry.

Here are a handful of the most developed solutions that have emerged in the wake of the project:

No. 1: Focus on contractors who provide growers with labor

There’s a push right now in the California Legislature to ratchet up the accountability on the middlemen who provide growers with the seasonal workers they need to pick vegetables, prune orchards or thin vineyards.

Last week, the state Senate passed a bill that would revoke a farm labor contractor’s license if it hires a supervisor who’s sexually harassed workers in the past three years.

The bill would require all employees to take a yearly two-hour training on sexual harassment prevention, and it would add questions about sexual harassment regulations to the licensing exam that all farm labor contractors need to take before they can operate in California.

“The bill tries to make sure that a farm labor contractor does not hire a supervisor who may have, at another workplace, been found guilty of sexual harassment or found guilty of a sexual assault,” said Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, who introduced the legislation. “We don’t want them fired from one field and just getting hired somewhere else.”

The legislation isn’t just about sexual harassment. It calls for more regulations and increased costs for farm labor contractors. The farm labor contractor trade group and some growers are fighting the bill, saying it would increase business costs substantially. They’re also concerned about how they’ll do background checks on supervisors.

Other grower groups, like the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, support the bill.

“Clearly, nobody should be creating a situation which could lead to sexual harassment,” said Barry Bedwell, the organization’s president.

The bill next goes for a vote in the state Assembly, where it’ll face a tougher fight.

No. 2: Get advocates directly into the field

In Santa Cruz County’s Pajaro Valley, where farmworkers pick millions of pounds of berries each summer, Monarch Services exists to help people who are victims of sexual assault or domestic violence. But Executive Director Laura Segura wasn’t seeing many farmworkers walk through her doors.

She soon realized why: The organization was open only at times when women were working in the field. By simply adding hours in the morning and evening, Monarch Services began helping more farmworkers.

That was the easy fix. But Segura wanted to go further. So her staff persuaded growers to allow them to visit women directly in the fields to train them on how to spot and report abuse.

“You have to go to the people,” Segura said. “You don’t wait for them to come to you, especially for those with high risk factors and barriers to accessing services, and farmworkers are very much that.”

The program, known as Campos Seguros, or Safe Fields, is unprecedented because of the cooperation of berry-growing giant Reiter Affiliated Cos. Previously, most outreach was done from the margins of a farm, without the official go-ahead from the grower.

By going directly to the workplace, Monarch trained more than 2,000 workers in 2013. This season, the organization will expand Campos Seguros beyond the basic training it’s been offering in the fields by presenting a series of sexual violence prevention workshops at farm labor camps and housing. The goal of the in-depth sessions is to reach families, husbands and boyfriends in order to “change the social norms that tolerate sexual violence,” Segura said.

Monarch also is trying to engage growers directly to try to solve the problem through forums and one-on-one meetings.

At the first forum, Segura said reps from the agricultural industry didn’t know much about the issue.

“They were very surprised about how severe the issue is,” she said. “I think that’s very common. Until we are able to create that awareness, I don’t know that folks are going to understand why they should get engaged in this issue.”

No. 3: Turn to drama

A Spanish radio soap opera tells the harrowing story of Juana, a Washington state farmworker who starts a new job at a local orchard with her friend Lupe.

Things start to go wrong on Juana’s first day when the supervisor takes her to a distant and isolated orchard. That’s where Juana’s boss flirts with her, gropes her and then offers her more hours if she goes along with his physical desires. If she doesn’t, he says he’ll fire her.

In the radionovela, it takes awhile for Juana to confide in Lupe, who tells her fearful friend that she needs to report what happened in the orchard. Lupe says to Juana: Think of all the women who will continue to deal with harassment from the supervisor if you don’t say something.

The story isn’t based on fiction. The script is drawn in part from the experiences of 20 Yakima Valley female farmworkers who helped create a University of Washington-sponsored public health campaign.

The radio piece will be adapted into a play that will be staged in July at a health festival in Yakima.

The farmworkers also said growers need to make sure farms are free of sexual harassment. So the campaign teamed up with the Washington Growers League to create an educational video that farmers can use to train their workers.

In addition, the growers league last year created a special training focused on the issue, and it was taken by 700 foremen.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the growers league, said Washington farmers are more eager than ever to access sexual harassment prevention training because of the media coverage surrounding the 2013 sexual harassment trial against the Evans Fruit Co., a major Yakima Valley-based apple grower.

At the federal civil trial, 14 women testified that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by an orchard foreman or crew leads. The company won the case, but Gempler said it put the agricultural community on notice.

“I think that case helped to create awareness on the part of many agricultural employers that hadn’t been involved in training their supervisorial staff or their employees that they should be doing so,” Gempler said.

As part of the public health campaign, the growers league, along with community groups and government agencies, will distribute wallet cards with information on how workers can get help if they are sexually harassed or abused.

“If you don’t have security at work, how are you supposed to support your family?” said Victoria Breckwich Vásquez, the University of Washington researcher who spearheaded the campaign. “It is important to us that we have sustainable agricultural communities, so you need people who are able to earn a living in agriculture and who can do it in a safe way.”

Sasha Khokha, Central Valley bureau chief for KQED Public Radio, contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.

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Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.