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05.29.2014

Effort to stymie sex abuse of female farmworkers

UW-led campaign spotlights rights of workforce that 'provides our households with food'

By Kathy Hall  |  HSNewsBeat  |  Updated 9:00 AM, 05.29.2014

Posted in: Education

  • A UW survey of 20 female farmworkers found that most had been sexually harassed or knew someone who had been. Flicker | Alex Proimos

Sexual harassment is an occupational health risk for women in the agricultural industry, a fact long known in the fields and recently confirmed by a University of Washington study. Female farm workers are 10 times more vulnerable to sexual assault than women in other occupations.

Now a UW-led team has launched a prevention effort with farmworkers in Eastern Washington. 

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(Click to enlarge.) The awareness campaign includes information cards in Spanish and English, outlining farmworkers' rights and resources.
Picture of cards that explain workers' rights to farmworkers
A radio drama based on stories from women who participated in the UW's study aims to raise public awareness of the problem and of workers’ rights. It is airing this summer on KDNA-FM in the Yakima Valley, the United States' only full-time educational Spanish-language public radio station. 

The awareness effort includes a call-in talk show on KDNA, a training video with the Washington Growers League, and integration of the issue in pesticide trainings given by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. In agricultural jobs, employees often work alone.

Farm managers are responsible for many of the rapes but are virtually unchecked, said William Tamayo, regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The vast majority of victims are non-English-speaking immigrants, more than half are undocumented and most are non-unionized, he said. Many fear that if they report their bosses for sexual harassment, they will be deported or lose their sole income source.

The UW's study was facilitated by Catherine Karr, an associate professor in the School of Public Health; Victoria Breckwich Vásquez, director of community engagement and education in the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center; and Elizabeth Torres of KDNA.

The researchers used culturally sensitive approaches to create an environment in which the 20 study participants, most from Mexico, felt safe to share their stories. The women had worked in the fields for a dozen years, on average. The majority said they had experienced sexual harassment or knew someone who had been harassed. 

“There should be a campaign to let the women know that it is not right to tolerate sexual harassment," one participant said. "We deserve that our dignity is respected when we work. We work hard and do our best.” 

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Kathy Hall
“It is not just a legal issue, it’s a workers’ rights and health and safety issue,” said Victoria Breckwich Vásquez, shown speaking to the Western Forum for Migrant and Community Health in February.
picture of Victoria Breckwich Vásquez
Said another woman, "Now it is time to stop all this abuse that has been happening for all these years.”

Their stories will give rise to prevention messages that emphasize workers’ rights, guide workers' responses to harassment, and identify resources for women, Breckwich Vásquez said. This summer the researchers are focusing on education and outreach. “To create solutions in the future, we are learning what farmworkers and their employers need now.” 

One key finding of the research, she said, is that that sexual harassment is a workplace stressor and heightens farmworkers' risk for injury and death. “It is not just a legal issue, it’s a workers’ rights and health and safety issue. We need to support this vital workforce that provides our households with food on our tables.”

She was recently invited by Oxfam America to help plan a national initiative to call attention to the problem and influence federal policy. 

The UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences funded the Yakima Valley study. The trio presented their findings at the Western Forum for Migrant and Community Health, held in Seattle and sponsored by the Northwest Regional Primary Care Association.

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