Sexually Abused Farmworkers Get Their Day in Court—and Win

Here's another egregious example of why we need better labor protections for U.S. farmworkers.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Sep 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Even compared with the deplorable labor conditions often faced by farmworkers in the U.S., the experience of at least five women who worked at Southwest Florida's Moreno Farms in 2011 and 2012 was nothing short of a nightmare.

Day in and day out, the women endured blatant sexual harassment from Omar and Oscar Moreno, the sons of the farm’s owner, and a third supervisor, Javier Garcia, including groping and propositioning and threats of retaliation if the women complained. The women testified that they lived in terror of being called off the production line where they packaged fresh produce and taken either to a walk-in cooler or to one of the trailers outside that were used for storage. It was there that three of the women were raped and two escaped attempted rape, according to Reuters. After the victims went to the police to report the incidents, they were fired.

In a twist that’s rare for the hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworkers who endure everything from wage theft and harassment to unsafe living conditions and exposure to dangerous levels of toxic agrichemicals, these five women finally got their day in court.

On Friday, the group was awarded $17.4 million by a federal jury in Miami, as the result of a lawsuit brought on their behalf by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But the victory is no doubt bittersweet. Not only were the original allegations essentially ignored by local prosecutors, who “decided there was insufficient evidence” to bring criminal charges against the men, according to Reuters, but it appears highly unlikely that they’ll ever see a dime of the jury’s award in the civil case: Moreno Farms officially went out of business in May, and the defendants seem to have disappeared. They failed to even show up to court, prompting the judge to issue a default judgment against the company.

The case is a shocking example of a reality that often goes unacknowledged in our bustling food economy: U.S. agricultural workers in the 21st century are too often condemned to work in conditions that more closely resemble those of the 19th century.

Even as another group of overlooked food workers, fast-food employees, have made tremendous strides over the past couple years in their fight to secure a higher minimum wage and other fair labor conditions, many of the nation’s estimated 2 million farmworkers remain excluded from a number of basic labor protections, including minimum-wage laws, mandatory days off, and the right to organize. The women who work in the industry face added risks: A 2010 report from UC Santa Cruz found that close to 40 percent of the 150 farmworkers interviewed had experienced verbal abuse, sexual assault, or rape while on the job.

True, some progress is being made. New York is weighing a so-called Farmworkers Bill of Rights that would close some gaping loopholes in the state’s labor laws as they apply (or don’t apply) to farmworkers there, including those who toil to supply high-priced produce to New York City’s fabled farmers markets. In California, which has a long history of both farm-labor abuse and activist victories, a 2014 law put new restrictions on the hiring of farm-labor contractors previously convicted of sexually assaulting employees or putting in supervisory roles people who have a history of abusing female workers.

Which, in light of the horrific abuse suffered by the women working at Moreno Farms, really makes you stop and think: If we’ve become so concerned with buying “cage-free” eggs, “antibiotic-free” poultry, “grass-fed” beef and “humanely raised” pork, why isn’t it that conscientious consumers haven’t been more vocal in demanding a label that certifies that the farmworkers responsible for bringing that food to market are being treated fairly?