A California Bill Could Help Make Farms a Safer Place for Women

S.B. 1087 would help keep farm labor contractors who have committed sexual assault from being able to work.

A female field worker picks strawberries in Oxnard, Calif. (Photo: Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

Jun 26, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The number of female farmworkers in the United States is proportionally small—18 percent—but there’s a job risk beyond the physical toil and pesticide exposure that these women deal with. Unlike their male counterparts, women have to worry about sexual assault and rape in the fields. In a 2010 report from UC Santa Cruz, nearly 40 percent of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, from verbal abuse to rape, while at work.

A bill working its way through the California State Senate could offer new protections to women working in agriculture.

Speaking to PBS last year, when Frontline aired a special on the issue, United Farm Workers cofounder Dolores Huerta outlined the problem, explaining that not only are women who are assaulted physically violated, but they have to weigh reporting the crime against the potential of losing their job. And their friends and family could be fired as well.

“These labor contractors that they hire, many of them are former farmworkers themselves, and they’ve never been trained in human resources or human relations management,” Huerta said. Their key management tool is the threat of firing.

“Of course, this then comes to [the surface] when a woman is a victim of sexual advances,” she continued. “Then what she’s worried about is not only losing her job; she’s worried that her husband will lose his job, or her brother or her boyfriend or somebody in the family. It might even be a cousin, because many of these families work together. So the whole family can get fired if a woman complains that she’s being sexually harassed.”

The crimes that are reported are rarely prosecuted.

But the new bill, which has the support of both industry and labor groups, could ease the problem by imposing restrictions on licensing of contractors who manage field crews if they have a history of sexual harassment. The bill will be up for a vote in the state senate next week.

S.B. 1087 would block the license of any contractor who “within the preceding 3 years, has been found by a court or an administrative agency to have committed sexual harassment of an employee” or employed someone in a supervising role who had committed sexual harassment of an employee within the last three years.

Additionally, employees and managers alike would be required to receive training on preventing sexual assault, just as they’re taught to avoid exposure to dangerous pesticides while on the job.

According to a KQED story, the most significant opposition has come from the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, both of which say there isn’t a sufficient means of conducting the kind of background checks the bill would require.

Farmwork consistently ranks high on the list of America’s most dangerous jobs, and even with the protections of the bill plenty of threats will remain in the fields—but while safeguards (albeit of varying effectiveness) against the occupational risks faced by workers of both genders are already in place, the law should be on the side of female farmworkers who have to worry about their male coworkers and bosses too.