EEOC case alleges rape in Florida’s strawberry fields, reminding us of an ongoing reality on farms beyond the protections of the Fair Food Program…

Photo and caption from the Tampa Bay Times

“No employee should be subjected to sexually degrading conduct as a condition of employment,” Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Miami district office, said in a statement. “Migrant farmworkers are no exception.”

Longtime Fair Food activists may be familiar with a thought experiment that CIW members often share in public presentations that is designed to put you, the consumer, at the edge of the field where the food you buy is harvested.  The mental exercise – set in a classic roadside farm stand, like the one pictured below, brimming with freshly picked, local fruits and vegetables – is intended to bridge the gap between the consumer buying produce, on the one hand, and the workers harvesting that produce in often brutal, demeaning labor conditions, on the other.  

Here is an example of the thought experiment, from the transcript of a Fair Food presentation at the 2018 Tom Tom Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia:


… Imagine you’re driving on a beautiful country road winding through Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and you come upon a bucolic farm-stand full of colorful, delicious, fresh sweet corn with kernels this big, the kind that pop and shoot sweet juice everywhere when you squeeze them, and huge, juicy watermelons with slices cut and arranged on a paper plate for you to taste, and red ripe tomatoes still smelling like the plants they were picked from that very morning.

You pull over and fill your bags with as much mouthwatering produce as you can carry and head to the cashier.  And as the cashier begins to ring up your purchase up, your perfect moment is suddenly shattered… by a scream… a scream coming from just over the cashier’s shoulder in the field where your fruit and vegetables are being picked. You look up and you see a young woman, a farmworker, being sexually assaulted by a supervisor in the supervisor’s truck.  And as the field now comes into focus you realize that in another corner a worker is on his knees, trying, in vain, to block the kicks and blows of another supervisor, a cup of water that was knocked from his hand on the ground at his side.  The supervisor is yelling, “Did you come here to work, or to drink water, you lazy mother….!”

And just then the cashier turns to you and, smiling, says, “That will be $21.50!  Cash or credit?”

What would you do?  Would you complete your purchase?  Would you turn your eyes away from the workers, give the cashier your money, and drive away?  

Or would you cut off your purchase immediately and try to stop the abuses — intervening directly, or maybe calling the police?

Of course, thousands of audience members, in talks and panels and workshops from New York to California, have responded with one voice and without hesitation to say NO, they would never buy produce picked by workers they knew were being sexually or otherwise physically abused.

And yet we do.  Every day, farmworkers in this county go to work knowing that they may face sexual harassment and assault, physical and verbal abuse, systemic wage theft, and dangerous working conditions as they pick the fruits and vegetables that we eat.  And every day we buy produce with hardly a thought given to those conditions, because the clean, colorful produce aisles where we buy our food are light years away from the fields where the harvesting – and the abuse – takes place.  Out of sight, out of mind, with only a thought experiment to remind us of the brutal reality countless farmworkers face every day to put food on our plates… until the headlines remind us that the thought experiment is actually rooted in tragic reality.

EEOC alleges the hypothetical farm stand is operating in Florida’s strawberry fields…

A photo of the farm stand at Favorite Farms posted to Yelp in 2015.

In June of last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued a Dover, Florida, strawberry farm by the name of Favorite Farms, Inc., “for allegedly firing a migrant farmworker because she complained about being raped and otherwise sexually harassed by a supervisor.”  The suit (which remains in court today and returned to the headlines last week when a procedural decision by the court made the news) describes a workplace straight out of a terrible nightmare.  Here is an extended excerpt from an article on the EEOC suit from the legal journal Law 360 (“EEOC Sues Fla. Farm For Firing Worker After Rape Allegation”):

… The agency’s lawsuit accused Favorite Farms Inc. of not investigating or taking any action against a male supervisor in charge of its agricultural operations and field labor for engaging in “egregious sexual harassment” toward the female farmworker, which included unwelcome sexual comments, forcible physical contact and rape.

Given her employer’s lack of action, the farmworker was forced to get a restraining order, according to the suit. But instead of addressing the problem, the EEOC alleged that Favorite Farms instead retaliated against the victim by suspending and ultimately firing her, actions that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“No employee should be subjected to sexually degrading conduct as a condition of employment,” Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Miami district office, said in a statement. “Migrant farmworkers are no exception. They are an important but vulnerable segment of our labor force whose civil rights this lawsuit seeks to protect.”

An email sent to Favorite Farms via its website went unreturned Wednesday.

In its complaint, the EEOC alleged that the supervisor in question, Hector Cruz, as part of his duties oversaw room assignments at on-site housing units that Favorite Farms provided for workers and their families.

In September 2015, Favorite Farms hired the female seasonal worker, and Cruz proceeded to sexually harass her by repeatedly demanding she have sex with him or lose her job, according to the complaint.

Although she rejected Cruz’s advances, his behavior continued unabated, culminating in an incident on Nov. 13, 2015, in which Cruz entered her housing unit under the guise of needing to fill two empty bedrooms with other workers and instead pushed her into one of the rooms and raped her, according to the complaint.

Cruz threatened the woman’s job if she reported the rape, but she did so anyway, informing both her employer and law enforcement that same day, the complaint said.

Favorite Farms, which lacked a policy for handling sexual harassment complaints, never investigated the migrant worker’s claims and instead fired her while retaining Cruz, the EEOC alleged.

The abuses alleged in the suit filed by the EEOC – sexual harassment, rape, retaliation – are all too familiar to farmworker women working outside the protections of the Fair Food Program.  The FPP’s unique combination of worker-to-worker education, a 24-hour complaint line, in-depth audits and zero tolerance for forced labor, sexual assault, and child labor backed by swift and meaningful market consequences for violations, has effectively eliminated those longstanding abuses for 35,000 workers on farms from Florida to New Jersey.  But for many more workers who continue to toil in fields beyond the reach of the Fair Food Program, fundamental human rights abuses remain common. 

And the industry that gave rise to this particular EEOC suit – the Florida strawberry industry – is decidedly no stranger to exploitation and abuse. 

An industry in dire need of reform, and a program with an unmatched track record of change…

Since its inauguration in 2011, the Fair Food Program has received a significant number of calls from strawberry workers in Florida.  Complaints from workers in the strawberry industry have included:

  • A supervisor firing his gun in the fields for “target practice” in a transparent effort to intimidate workers engaged in harvesting;
  • A worker being beaten by his supervisor with his own strawberry picking cart;
  • A worker being lifted by the collar of his shirt by his supervisor and thrown to the ground;
  • Widespread exposure to pesticides resulting in workers experiencing rashes, dizziness, and nausea:
  • Systemic wage theft.

The need for reform in the Florida strawberry industry is as urgent as it is manifest.  This latest case of alleged sexual assault and retaliation could have been avoided had the FFP’s protections been in place at Favorite Farms.  According to the EEOC complaint, the supervisor in question subjected the victim to an escalating pattern of sexual harassment over an extended period of time before committing assault.  Under the Fair Food Program, however, workers empowered by the Program’s strict prohibition against retaliation are able to file a complaint at the first sign of harassment without hesitating to weigh the benefits of complaining against the possibility of being fired, or hoping against hope that the harasser might stop of his or her own accord.  And that freedom to identify an abusive supervisor or co-worker serves the best interests of both the complainant and the company itself, ensuring that small problems are nipped in the bud before they have a chance to develop into full-blown crises.  

Under the Program’s worker-led monitoring mechanisms, those who might harass their co-workers know two things: 1) if they do, they will be caught, and, 2) if they are caught, the consequences will be severe.  

In this way, the economic calculus around harassment is flipped on its head.  Outside the Fair Food Program, the worker is forced to consider the possibility of being fired if she complains about harassment, and therefore 99 times out of 100 decides not to complain.  And the harassment persists, unabated.  Under the protections of the Fair Food Program, however, the harasser must now consider the possibility of being fired before assaulting a worker, and therefore 99 times out of 100 decides not to harass.  And a new world, a world without victims, is brought into being. 

The value of the Fair Food Program is not theoretical nor ideological.  It is practical, it is proven, and it is shared among workers, growers, and buyers alike.  

One Florida strawberry grower (Sunripe Certified Brands) has already stepped up and adopted the protections of the Fair Food Program.  It is time for the rest of the state’s industry to follow suit and recognize the value of the Fair Food Program for itself and its workers.  Those workers who have already needlessly suffered abuse for generations deserve no less.