“Whether you win or lose, you stand up”…

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) files a lawsuit against Florida tomato giant DiMare for sexual harassment

News broke last Thursday of a major lawsuit filed in federal court by the EEOC, the federal agency empowered to protect workers against discrimination and harassment on the job (“Suit against Immokalee agricultural firm alleges harassment,” Ft. Myers News-Press, 3/24/11). The News-Press article describes the suit:

“A large agricultural firm is being sued by the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission regarding the alleged sexual harassment of women working at the company’s operations in Immokalee.

The lawsuit filed late Tuesday in federal court in Fort Myers against DiMare Ruskin Inc. alleges that at least three women were subjected to groping and other unwelcome physical advances and a nearly daily barrage of vulgar comments by supervisors…” read more

The details of the alleged harassment described in the article are beyond disturbing.

But, sadly, the women’s stories are not unique to DiMare. Sexual harassment is endemic in agriculture. According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “90% of female farmworkers cite sexual harassment as a serious problem.”

The CIW is making sexual harassment a particular point of emphasis this season as we — in collaboration with some of the industry’s leading growers through the Fair Food program’s Working Group — develop guidelines and benchmarks for the industry-wide implementation of the program’s Code of Conduct in the coming season, which begins in November. [DiMare is not one of the growers participating in the pilot rollout this season and so is not subject to the Code of Conduct and its consequences for violations like sexual harassment until next season.]

We are building the structures today — including educational curricula, participatory complaint mechanisms, and health and safety processes — that will elevate the issue of sexual harassment in the fields and help us identify and eliminate the sources of this widespread abuse tomorrow.

But we cannot do it alone. The companies that buy tens of millions of pounds of Florida tomatoes every year but have not yet signed-on to the Campaign for Fair Food — companies like Publix, Kroger, and WalMart — must also do their part, by making a firm commitment to condition their purchases on their suppliers’ compliance with the Code of Conduct. And we need you — consumers — to demand full support for the Campaign for Fair Food from those supermarket giants that continue to hold out.

Social isolation an obstacle to change: It is an unfortunate fact that very few people today have any real contact with agriculture. Fewer still have any idea at all what it is to earn a living from picking fruits and vegetables. That distance, that social isolation, contributes mightily to the vulnerability of farmworkers, and in particular of female farmworkers. If virtually no consumers, no journalists or writers, no politicians or judges, have ever worked in the fields or even have family members who earn a living picking fruit, how is it possible to build the bridge of empathy necessary to change the harsh, and all too often brutal, reality faced by those who harvest our food?

To bridge that gap, much, much more education is needed on the challenges — and dangers — faced by women who work in the fields today. To begin that process, here below is an extended excerpt from a 2008 article entitled “Plowing under the fields of shame”:

“… The abuse – and dismissal – of immigrant women who work in agriculture is epidemic. In a 1997 study, 90 percent of female farmworkers in California reported sexual harassment as a major problem. Ten years later, those who work with farmworkers say that abuse – which ranges from obscene jokes and sexual innuendo to inappropriate rubbing, pinching and even rape – affects thousands of women. Workers in Salinas, Calif., refer to one company as the field de calzon, or “field of panties,” because so many supervisors rape women there. In several recent cases brought before federal court in California, women who resisted advances were fired or suspended without pay.

Sexual assault and harassment is by no means unique to agriculture, but female farmworkers are 10 times more vulnerable than other workers, says William Tamayo, regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, San Francisco District. A recent survey in California found that male workers outnumber women in the fields and nurseries by about 20 to one. There is little workplace monitoring. The vast majority of farmworker women are non-English-speaking immigrants, lured to the U.S. by jobs that pay three times the wages available in Mexico or Central America. Even so, that’s not a lot of money: The average woman in agriculture makes $11,250 a year, saddling her to an exhausting life in which every dollar is precious.

“Most of us when we sit down and eat our good food don’t ever consider what these women go through to ensure that all of us can feed our families, ” says Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union. “It’s almost like sexual harassment is part of the job. A woman can expect that at one time or another she will be sexually harassed by her foreman.” read more

And to continue the process of building awareness, we’re going to suggest something a little different: Rent the 2005 film “North Country.”

As we mentioned above, there are no movies or books about the lives of female farmworkers. But though it is set in a very different time and context, “North Country” is as close an approximation as you will find to the toxic environment women face in the fields today, and it comes wrapped in a popular culture package.

The Oscar-nominated film tells the story of the first major successful sexual harassment case in US history, Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, which began in 1984 when Lois Jenson “mailed a complaint to the Minnesota Human Rights Department detailing the abuse she experienced in the mines.”

The film — which takes place at a time when women were just beginning to enter the mines and so were still a small minority of the workforce, just as they are today in the fields — captures the physical isolation, constant psychological pressure, and painfully raw forms of abuse faced by those early female mineworkers. That same tableau of abuse is faced today by all too many women when they grab a bucket and step into the fields to pick.

So check out the movie, learn more about sexual harassment in the fields, and help us bring about a more modern, more humane farm labor system for all farmworkers, men and women. In the words of Monica Ramirez, director of the Immigrant Women’s Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family.”

A final note: “North Country” also depicts the many obstacles Lois Jenson and other women who participated in the complaint faced along the path to a successful outcome, including a petition attacking the suit circulated by other women at the mine, a noose hung above Lois’ workplace, and a legal defense aimed at questioning the complainants’ character. The quote that began this post — “Whether you win or lose, you stand up” — is spoken by Jenson in her battle with self-doubt as she confronts all the forces, each harder to bear than the last, standing between her and the justice she ultimately achieves.

The women who filed the complaint in the DiMare case are sure to face many daunting obstacles themselves as the case proceeds. But, as Lois Jenson’s character reminds us, no matter how the legal process ends up, they have already won. They stood up.