These Women Are Fasting to Prevent Sexual Assault

Immigrant women in California’s janitorial industry are standing up for their rights.
(Photo: SEIU USWW)
Sep 13, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

When she was 23 years old, Jasmin Castillo took the night shift as a janitor at an office building in Los Angeles. She needed the job to support herself and her mother after they left their home in El Salvador for California three years earlier. But it became increasingly difficult to do her work because of unwelcome attention from one of her supervisors.

“He would look at my body and ask me to sleep with him,” Castillo told TakePart. “He followed me throughout the office while I was vacuuming.”

Without legal documents to be in the country, Castillo tried to keep her head down, but one day the supervisor groped her. She went to the building’s security office and filed a complaint.

“They said they’d do an investigation, but nothing happened,” said Castillo. “They protected the supervisor. I didn’t know what my rights were in this country.”

Today, the 40-year-old works with the SEIU United Service Workers West, organizing union members to prevent rape or sexual harassment at the hands of a supervisor, a problem they suspect more women face than reports may indicate. On the lawn of the California State Capitol in Sacramento this week, Castillo is fasting with 17 other women who have survived rape or sexual assault while working as janitors to urge Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill that they say will protect them.

“I want to send a message to Governor Brown that it’s time to stand up for all these women,” said Castillo. “We want with all our hearts for him to sign this bill.”

Jasmin Castillo. (Photo: SEIU USWW)

If Brown signs A.B. 1978, the California Department of Industrial Relations will be required to implement sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors, as well as training for employees that informs them of their rights. The law will also create a registry system for janitorial contractors, increasing accountability in the industry. The registry would mimic systems that are in place for contractors in other industries, such as farm labor and garment manufacturing. The law will also support the expansion of an independent toll-free hotline for complaints.

“More than half of all janitorial employers are in the black market—they function in an underground economy because anybody with a mop and a broom can become a janitorial contractor,” said Alejandra Valles, secretary-treasurer of SEIU United Service Workers West. “The goal is to regulate and change the culture of the entire industry, not just the union.”

(Photo: SEIU USWW)

The bill was sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, and passed both houses with bipartisan support earlier this year. Brown, who has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill, has not indicated whether he intends to sign.

The plight of janitorial workers in California, many of whom are immigrant women working alone at night, was brought to light last June by a PBS Frontline investigation called Rape on the Night Shift. It uncovered an issue that Valles says was the industry’s “dirty little secret. A lot of women just didn’t talk about it, but everybody knew it was there.”

Now that the secret is out, the women fasting on the front lawn of the Capitol believe A.B. 1978 is the next vital step toward justice for janitorial workers.

“If [Brown] signs the bill, he’ll be sending these women who have spoken up a message that when they lift their voices, it matters,” said Valles. “It will be groundbreaking.”