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Change is growing: Female farmworkers lead the fight against workplace sexual harrasment

By Ally Hembree

“Can you imagine going to work every single day with the threat of violence against you?” Mónica Ramírez asked. “Can you imagine what it must be like to work picking strawberries or cucumbers or tomatoes and having to constantly be looking over your shoulder worrying that someone might hurt you?”

According to the Associated Students of Puget Sound (ASUPS), Ramírez was the first attorney in the United States to focus on representing farmworker women in their fight against pervasive sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. She came to campus on March 20 to speak about her advocacy work for women facing sexual harassment in the workplace. Among many of her activist accolades, Ramírez is the co-founder and president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Farmworker Women’s Alliance). “It’s the experience of farmworker women and the reality that we needed to start forming organizations and advocating for ourselves that brought these women … together,” Ramírez said. “We decided that in order for us to ensure policy priorities, the agenda and the needs of farmworker women were always brought to the forefront, we were going to have to do that work.”

When Ramírez was 19, she worked in the fields alongside a family in Fremont, Ohio. It was during this experience that she learned about the hazardous pesticide exposure, pregnancy discrimination and wage theft endured by farmworker women. “I learned, as I was working there for hours under that hot sun, that all the earnings that we would pick for that day actually wouldn’t be paid to the young girls,” Ramírez said. “Their earnings were paid to their father or their male family member, and that’s actually something that commonly happens around the country to farmworker women.”

In 2010, Ramírez co-authored and published a report titled “Injustice On Our Plates” with the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the interviews for the report, women across the board cited sexual violence as a systemic issue. “It’s not just farmworker women who are experiencing this and we know that it’s a problem in other industries,” Ramírez said. “But for farmworker women, who often live in the shadows, who often do not even know where they are in this nation … they are being preyed upon.”

Farmworker women are not only at risk for wage theft, hazardous pesticide exposure and pregnancy discrimination, but they also risk deportation for non-compliance. “Part of the reason that we see this high rate of sexual harassment against farmworker women is because the perpetrators who are committing the violence against them know that they have very few resources,” Ramírez said. “They often do not know where they are in the nation, they don’t know what their rights are, they don’t know who can protect them, they don’t know who to go to for help, and so that means that many of the perpetrators will never face justice.”

Ramírez also spoke about connections between the #MeToo movement and farmworker women. In the lead up to “The Take Back the Workplace” march in Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 2017, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas wrote a letter published in Time magazine, giving their support for the women in Hollywood who have disclosed similar stories of sexual harassment in the workplace. “Your job feeds souls, fills hearts and spreads joy,” the letter said. “Our job nourishes the nation with the fruits, vegetables and other crops that we plant, pick and pack. Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security.”

Hearing the perspective of farmworker women was meaningful for students with experience in migrant farmworker activism. “What I’ve noticed from the farmworkers’ movement that we were a part of, which was focused on … establishing a union for farm workers at Tacoma Brother’s Farms, it was almost entirely run by men,” Matt Fergoda, a senior and member of Advocates for Detained Voices, said. “I think getting a perspective from farmworker women and their experiences is super important and necessary to do the work of both of #MeToo and Time’s Up and the conversation around sexual assault that’s happening right now, but also in effectively advocating for farm workers.”

The parallels between the working conditions of farmworker women and women in the entertainment industry were striking to students. “She’s obviously had a lot of experience working on particular people’s cases and so I thought it was really important to hear about in light of the #MeToo movement,” first-year Anneke Fleming said. “It’s important for her to be on this campus because I don’t think a lot of people would have those connections with migrant workers or farmworker women.”

 

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