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Violated Workers

June 26, 2013

There are an estimated 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the United States, according to a 2012 survey compiled by the National Center for Farmworker Health. Most are foreign born, undocumented, under the age of 40, and have an average 8th grade education level. But as PBS’s new Frontline documentary reveals, the situation is graver for the one-fifth of those workers who are female.

Part of a collaboration among UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Univision, and Frontline, Rape in the Fields documents the frequent, widespread, and oft-ignored sexual abuse of the women working in the U.S. agricultural industry. “The majority of farmworker women are undocumented, which makes them largely invisible to official statistics,” said producer Andres Cediel in an email interview.

Added Bernice Yeung, a reporter for the Center of Investigative Reporting: “This is a difficult issue to quantify and so it can be hard to illustrate how large the problem is; there have not been many in-depth academic, governmental, or industry efforts to examine the issue.”

Maricruz Ladino, a farmworker based in California’s Monterey County whose supervisor repeatedly assaulted her in 2006, speaks in the documentary about her experience and the fear and frustration that followed: “I didn’t say anything for a long time because of my job, but the time came when I said ‘no more.’ I made a complaint. Then there were threats and they got worse. Threats that if I continued with the case, I would be deported.”

Ladino’s legal struggle lasted four years until a settlement was reached in 2010. But for other women, Cediel says, litigation is rarely an option. “Because of their immigration status, many are afraid to approach law enforcement. When you put this together with language barriers, cultural issues and personal shame, many women do not want to talk about the issue.”

As of now, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the only federal body dedicated to pursuing cases of workplace sexual harassment. In the past 15 years, more than 1,000 complaints have been filed with the commission concerning the agricultural industry. However, unlike Ladino’s case, only about half of these lawsuits are followed up by the commission and even fewer make it to court.

“My hope is that viewers think more about not only about where their food comes from and the people who bring it to them, but also all the undocumented workers in this country—from janitorial services, to the hotel and restaurant industries. There are millions of people in this country working without papers who are being abused and taken advantage of by others,” said Cediel.

Rape in the Fields (Violación de un Sueño) premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on PBS and airs on Saturday on Univision.

—Jessica Pena

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