Who Feeds Us? Women In the Fields

Young migrant farm workerWho Feeds Us? is my attempt to investigate the lives of our farm workers. Who picks our crops and packages our meals and how are they treated in our name? What do we implicitly sanction as we swipe our debit cards through the checkout line?

The accompanying picture is of a migrant farm worker, much like Olivia Tamayo, who made history last week when she became the first female migrant worker to successfully bring a sexual harrassment suit against her employer to a federal jury. Ms. Tamayo was awarded over one million dollars in 2005 when a district court found Harris Farms guilty of sexual harrassment and descrimination. Last week, a federal court upheld that decision, finding that Harris Farms inappropriately responding after Ms. Tamayo was raped three times by her direct supervisor. Harris’ only action was to move Ms. Tamayo to an empty field that was closer to her rapist’s house.

Following the verdict, an alarming op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times described Ms. Tamayo’s plight as unique only in the attention it garnered. Sexual harrassment and assault of female farm workers is so prevalent, that a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that 90% of surveyed female farm workers considered it a “serious problem.” In fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that one farm was so notorious for rapes and coerced sex that it was nicknamed “fil de calzon” (“field of panties”). The EEOC’s regional attorney William R. Tamayo (no relation to Olivia) reported his finding to the SPLC: “We were told that hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors.”

Guest and migrant workers are vulnerable to begin with. With limited language and cultural understanding of their temporary home, financial desperation and often less-than-legal living arrangements, such workers do not know their rights or feel comfortable reporting maltreatment. While research into the vulnerability of guest workers is relatively new, preliminary evidence into the particular circumstances of female guest workers suggests that there is much to cover. Last year, the SPLC, EEOC and the Agricultural Worker Health Project (funded by California Rural Legal Assistance) founded a conference specifically to address and study sexual harassment of female farm workers.

The power imbalance between female migrant worker and supervisor is further compounded by the inability of such workers to leave. Often, they have put themselves into debt in order to arrive at their new jobs and their guest visas (if they have one) are such that they can only work for the one employer who offered to sponsor them. This trapped arrangement means that most harassed workers are unable to leave the situation that victimizes them.

The success of Olivia Tamayo is incredibly heartening as is the surge in attention toward and funding of research in this matter. But until strict guidelines and supervision are in place to protect vulnerable members of the agricultural workers corps, increased media attention is the only tool we have to make ethical choices.

Image Credit: Agricultural Worker Health Project

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1 thought on “Who Feeds Us? Women In the Fields”

  1. While I am heartened to see Ms. Tamayo was successful in her suit, calling rape “sexual harassment” sickens me.

    How sad it is that we often give more thought to how our food choices affect the welfare of the environment or the welfare of animals.

    Our food system, especially for fresh produce, is built on the backs of migrant workers. Their plight gets very little attention in the mainstream media.

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