Farmworker Women Labor, Health and Domestic Violence Issues
Fifty-fourth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women

Presented By: Mily Trevino-Sauceda

California’s 1.2 million farmworkers, over thirty-five percent of whom are women, comprise one of the largest labor forces in the United States[1]. This group participates in an employment situation that is unlike any other in this country. Farm laborers work longer hours, earn lower wages[2], face more hazardous work conditions[3] and receive fewer benefits[4] than any other labor group in the United States. These workers are predominantly from Mexico (96%) and limited-English proficient, speaking either Spanish or an indigenous Mexican language. Refugees from an oppressive political and economic situation in their homelands, farmworkers turn to agricultural work as one of their few opportunities for employment, becoming targets for exploitation by labor contractors and growers. Because of limited access to the information, innovation, trade, services and financial resources that drive today’s economy, they languish devoid of the opportunities to share in our nation’s prosperity.

Despite the high incidence of a number of social ills associated with poverty - such as poor health, substance abuse, domestic violence and deteriorated housing – farmworkers are often unable to access the preventive and safety net services[5] they need to live healthy and productive lives. In rural areas, municipal infrastructure, including transportation systems, utilities, public institutions and other services, is inadequate. Educational organizations, health and human service agencies and other institutions often do not provide quality services in remote areas due to unavailability of trained, culturally competent staff, transportation difficulties as well as undercounting, isolation and transience of rural farmworker populations.

For a number of reasons, farmworker women are especially disenfranchised and suffer from high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence[6]. 17% reported abuse by a husband, boyfriend, family member or companion (California Women’s Health Survey, 1994).  They are likely to confront particular barriers rooted in the intersection of gender with race, immigration status, lack of knowledge about the criminal justice system, and culture which contribute to their victimization and trap them in abusive relationships. In communities where sex role stereotyping and internalized oppression are strong, the sexual exploitation of women takes on epidemic proportions. From childhood Latinas are raised to be submissive and dependent, and are especially vulnerable to verbal and physical harassment and domestic violence up to and including rape. At the workplace, farmworker women face the specter of sexual harassment and sexual assault[7]. At home, they are at high risk for domestic violence and sexual assault. These facts are borne out through crime statistics. (Please note that crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence are much underreported, and that the following information reflects this reality: actual rates are thought to be much higher.)           

Crimes against women constitute a higher percentage of crimes in the counties that are in our service area. For example, 85% of the total reported crimes in Merced County are rape and assault, 77% for Kern County, 78% for Madera County, 75% for Fresno County, 69% for Ventura County, 86% for Tulare County, 84% for Pajaro Valley, 73% for Salinas Valley, and 80% for the Coachella Valley. (In California, the statewide average is 70%.)

Current resources are not meeting the needs of California’s farmworker women in the proposed service area. The suffering of victims who are migrant farmworker women is exacerbated because so often they are isolated in rural communities with little real access to social, legal and other supportive services. In particular, there is a dearth of community-based assistance that is sensitive to particular barriers and issues and would help them to prevent and recover from sexual assault and domestic violence. Also, victim’s health and safety can be greatly increased with information about the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) which, was reauthorized in 2005, significantly expands the legal rights of battered immigrant women and their children, helps more women file for legal immigration status without their abusers’ cooperation and helps them access public benefits for themselves and/or their children. Because few farmworker women are currently able to access this relief, survivor advocates must know the legal rights of battered immigrant women. Alternative remedies that address the unique needs of the farmworker women’s community, and that do not depend upon the formal legal and social service systems, must be developed and tested.  Farmworker women’s advocates must then work together at state community levels to educate others and to change the way farmworker women are treated when they seek help.  In California farmworker women play an active role in ensuring awareness of and access to existing protections.  Farmworker women, through Lideres Campesinas help reform laws, policies and practices in their communities that cut victims off from systems of relief. 

Advocacy and support is needed to ensure that police, courts, shelters, crisis centers, public benefits, immigration, legal aid, and health care systems do not fail farmworker battered/exploited women who are legally entitled to help.  Most employees working in these systems are unaware of the special legal protections open to battered/exploited immigrant women and farmworker women. This lack of information, coupled with widespread anti-immigrant senti­ment, has a devastating impact on battered and exploited farmworker women who turn to the legal or social service system for help. Women are turned away by shelters and public benefits providers even when seeking services to which they are legally entitled.  Police often do not respond when called to an incident of violence against a farmworker woman. In some instances police, prosecutors or judges have turned abused women into the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rather than prosecute their abusers.  At times, because an officer on call refused to take a police report, the survivor does not have documented proof of abuse.

[1] An estimated 36% of the nation’s farmworkers are employed in California (National Agricultural Worker Survey, 2003-2004)

[2] In California overall, 22 % of farmworkers in 2003 had incomes below federal poverty levels; for an individual was $9,573 and $14,680 for a family of three. (Demographics and Family Characteristics, Aguirre International June 2005.)  California’s farmworker families’ income is far below from the national average family income of $15,000-$17,499, surveyed in 2001-2002 by NAWS. Thirty percent of all farmworkers had family incomes below the federal poverty guidelines (NAWS 2001-2002 A demographic and Employment Profile of US Farmworkers.)

[3] In 1996 farmworkers had a death rate five times higher and an injury rate double that of the average of workers in all other industries in the United States.

[4] The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) in 2001-2002 reported that 77 % of workers reported that their employer would not offer health insurance and 15% did not know. In terms of workers compensation, 20 % of workers said they would not be covered and 31 % said did not know if they would be covered if injured in the workplace.

[5] NAWS 2001-2002, contribution based programs  & Needs based programs.

[6] Líderes Campesinas archives Convivencias (statewide gatherings of farmworker women), Visalia, California 2002 & Pacific Grove, April 2004

[7] EEOC & Tanimura & Antle Settle Sexual Harassment case in the agricultural industry February 1999; EEOC & Harris Farms, jury in favor of Olivia Tamayo, victim of Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace January 2005.

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