Gender-Based Violence in US Farms
Category Nature Monday - August 28 2023, 02:39 UTC - 6 months ago Sexual exploitation of female workers on U.S. farms is far too common and affects an estimated 337,000 female migrant workers. U.S. federal labor laws hold a special status and are exempt from child labor laws, making migrant children especially vulnerable to abuse. Farmers and legislators need to prioritize worker safety, education, and rights to reduce the risk of sexual harassment.
Monday - August 28 2023, 02:39 UTC - 6 months ago
Sexual exploitation of female workers on U.S. farms is far too common and affects an estimated 337,000 female migrant workers. U.S. federal labor laws hold a special status and are exempt from child labor laws, making migrant children especially vulnerable to abuse. Farmers and legislators need to prioritize worker safety, education, and rights to reduce the risk of sexual harassment.
Television crime shows often are set in cities, but in its third season, ABC’s "American Crime" took a different tack. It opened on a tomato farm in North Carolina, where it showed a young woman being brutally raped in a field by her supervisor.
"People die all the time on that farm. Nobody cares. Women get raped, regular," another character tells a police interrogator.
The show’s writers did their research. Studies show that 80% of Mexican and Mexican American women farmworkers in the U.S. have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. Rape is common enough for some to nickname their workplace the "fields of panties." For comparison, about 38% of women in the U.S. report experiencing some kind of workplace sexual harassment.
In a recent report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization called for transformative changes to the formal and informal social systems that disempower women who work on farms and in the food sector around the world. While violence against women in agriculture may seem like an issue mainly experienced in developing countries, the truth is that it also happens all too often to women and girls on farms in the U.S.
As we see it, sexual exploitation perpetrated by men in positions of power instills fear that keeps farm laborers obedient, despite precarious working conditions – and keeps fruits and vegetables cheap.
Vulnerable workers .
In our research on rural development, agriculture and rural gender inequality, we have found that gender-based violence against female workers is frighteningly common on U.S. farms.
According to the U.N., violence against women and girls includes "any gender-based act that creates sexual, psychological, or physical harm or suffering." Men and boys can, of course, experience gender-based violence on U.S. farms, but to our knowledge no corroborating research exists.
Most often, sexual violence against women is committed by men in positions of power, such as foremen, farm labor contractors, farm owners and co-workers. Unfortunately, farm workers often buy into the myth that women bring sexual harassment on themselves. This belief makes it difficult for victims to get support.
Immigrant women farm workers are vulnerable because of power imbalances in their male-dominated workplaces. Women represent 28% of the nation’s farm workers, making them a minority on many farms. Most are immigrants from Latin America, and many are undocumented.
Female farm workers also face a gender wage gap of about 6%, partly because of parenting responsibilities that limit the number of hours they can work. Researchers have documented how men in positions of power take advantage of this vulnerability by offering hours and job perks in exchange for sexual favors and threatening to fire women if they refuse.
The role of child labor .
Girls under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse on farms. While much-needed reporting has generated a public outcry against arduous work conditions for migrant child laborers, migrant children have worked in agriculture in the U.S. for decades – legally.
Agriculture holds a special status under federal labor laws and is exempt from child labor laws adopted in other industries. Even so, child labor laws prohibit children under 12 from working in agriculture, and children under 16 from working in hazardous conditions. There are exemptions for children working on family farms.
Unfortunately, these laws do little to protect migrant children who work long hours and are exposed to pesticides, hazardous machinery and extreme temperatures. These children, educated in foreign schools and unfamiliar with the language and culture of the U.S., are vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.
We have seen stories of migrant child laborers who are aware of the power their employers have over them and have been too scared to report abuse.
Take action .
We believe that no worker – regardless of gender, nationality or documentation status – should have to suffer in silence. We must provide better labor protections, including enforcing existing laws. To reduce the risk of sexual harassment, there should also be more efforts to increase legal immigration in order to reduce workplace power imbalances.
The federal government should expand worker education and outreach, and technology can also help. For example, networked dash cams could protect workers in hazardous jobs.
The bottom line is that the needs and rights of farm laborers must take priority over food production costs. We need to ensure that farm workers are safe, educated and valued as an integral part of our food system.