After #MeToo, This Group Has Nearly Erased Sexual Harassment in Farm Fields
On big farms, protecting women and men from sexual violence has required a cultural shift. Reporter Vera L. Chang spent weeks with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, documenting their effective methods of education, monitoring, and enforcement.
Nely Rodríguez stands in front of 43 farmworkers and supervisors who sit side by side at picnic tables wearing various protective workwear—hats, ski masks, bandanas, socks as sleeves.
Rodríguez, a member and worker-leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), points to a drawing of a female farmworker bent over picking tomatoes while a male supervisor stands over her saying, “¡Mamacita, qué rico te vez!” or “Hot momma, you look so sexy!”
“What should you do if this happens to one of your compañeras?” she asks, speaking with warmth and dignified confidence. A few workers laugh, others yell in collective response, “Report it!”
It’s June 2019, and Rodríguez, 53, is in the Sea Islands of South Carolina at Lipman Family Farms, America’s largest field tomato grower and one of the country’s largest agricultural employers. Here, orderly rows of tomato plants coexist next to old-growth jungle with oaks and Spanish moss. Five hundred men and women are harvesting crops across Lipman’s eight farms in this St. Helena Island site—one of more than 30 Lipman locations in the U.S.
Back in 2011, Lipman was one of the first growers to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), a worker-led human-rights initiative run by CIW. The FFP is now on 27 farms, but, as an early signer, Lipman was instrumental in getting other industrial tomato producers to participate in the program in order to gain the same access to participating buyers, which today include 14 U.S. corporate retailers—grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and institutional food providers including Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Compass North America. By joining the FFP, growers agree to a code of conduct that promises that fields will be free of sexual harassment and assault, among other fundamental human rights.
While a wide range of industries responded to the #MeToo movement by setting new standards and creating new protocols to prevent sexual harassment, that hasn’t been the case in agriculture. After the movement erupted, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, saw web traffic for sexual harassment-related searches more than double between 2017 and 2018, as individuals and employers sought information to deal with workplace harassment.
But in agriculture, forestry, and fishing there were fewer reports than before. Victims everywhere receive messages to remain quiet, but, according to Anna Park, EEOC’s L.A. District Regional Attorney, this silence has been especially intense in farm fields. “We don’t see the floodgates from the people who are most affected,” said Park, who was featured in PBS Frontline’s seminal documentary, "Rape in the Fields.” “I’m not sure that #MeToo has trickled down to low-wage earners.”
And yet, Rodríguez and others working with the Fair Food Program have shown that the opposite is possible: When farmworkers have the opportunity to transform their work culture on their own terms, they seize it. CIW farmworkers have devised a unique mix of education, monitoring, and enforcement mechanisms that prevent—not just remedy—sexual violence at work.
In October 1999, a road patrol officer was dispatched to a farm labor trailer camp. The incident report described how Diego Muriel, a supervisor at the farm labor contract company, had entered the home of Martin Vasco, woken him up, and demanded he get to work. Vasco responded that he couldn’t—he was sick and on medication.
According to the report, Muriel then kicked Vasco on the back of his legs and threatened to hit him with a bottle if he didn’t pay him. Muriel was said to have Mafia connections and trafficked workers to and within the U.S., where he held them in debt peonage. Muriel attempted to take Vasco’s entire check every payday, claiming Vasco owed him $1,300, leaving Vasco with no money for food.
“It is possible that Vasco’s life might be in danger for calling the police,” the report continued. Vasco then dropped the charges for fear of retaliation.
A detective was notified of Vasco’s case, but no action was taken. Muriel’s employer, whose housing supervisor was made aware of the situation by the officer who responded to the call, didn’t take action either.
“The tools, standards, and processes of the legal system don’t work for people in migrant labor,” said James Wheaton, a public interest and civil rights attorney with the First Amendment Project. Farm labor contractors often wield immense power over workers’ lives—hiring, exploiting, and firing them at will—in an environment characterized by intimidation and terror. Without a grievance mechanism that protects victims from retaliation, workers like Vasco remain in the shadows. This lack of response to mistreatment is common in U.S. agriculture, notorious for its longstanding culture of impunity.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and Muriel’s story is even darker than the raw violence that the police report revealed. Agriculture’s weak regulatory environment has meant that sexual abuse is also often present alongside other forms of violence—it’s just harder to see.
In Muriel’s case, only one legal report was ever filed. But 14 years later, the Fair Food Program uncovered scores of testimonies by workers who hadn’t pursued charges about Muriel’s crimes—including unchecked sexual harassment and assault.
Muriel would “rub against” female workers as he walked the fields, according to reported testimonies of workers interviewed by the program’s third-party monitoring body. According to the report, he would “stare at women” for long periods of time, gift them extra piece-rate tickets (payment per amount harvested) “so they would let him touch them,” and let himself into their bedrooms while they slept. As the report describes, he took a 16-year-old to a motel for three days only to release her when the girl’s father “put a gun to his head.” And according to the report, Muriel then paid this statutory rape victim, who became pregnant, to disappear. A male worker said that Muriel told him, “All the women that work in the field, married or single, I have taken advantage of them.” Another male farmworker confided, “Most women are afraid of losing their jobs and won’t speak up.”
Sexual abuse is endemic in any degenerated labor landscape, explained Ambassador Luis C. deBaca, former director of the Office for Sex Offender Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking during the Obama Administration. “Anytime you have people under the control of their bosses, there will end up being sexual manifestations of that power differential,” deBaca said, noting that the secretive, sensitive, and stigmatized nature of sexual violence—which impacts both men and women—makes it hard to uncover. Because of the nature of these crimes, there are almost never eyewitnesses, and victims are nearly always reticent to speak out.
Back at Lipman Family Farms, Rodríguez explained that the program works because workers are empowered to monitor their own rights. This shifts the culture away from secrecy. The first step in doing so: education. And FFP education sessions are nothing like boilerplate anti-sexual harassment tutorials.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers runs live, interactive, peer-to-peer trainings that use theater, artwork, and real situations to teach workers about their rights. Since the FFP started, CIW has conducted 775 in-person sessions that have educated more than 60,000 workers across seven East Coast states. Two Lipman human resources representatives, whose bright orange shirts gave a pop of color in the earth-toned landscape, were there that day to demonstrate the farm’s public support of the program.
At CIW’s education session, some workers and supervisors were unenthusiastic about participating in the program. But, as Rodríguez sees it, the education still works. The seasonal repetition is important. Not all workers file reports right away, but over time, they get familiar with the process, shed self-blame as victims, and embrace new norms.
Under the FFP, workers (and supervisors and growers) are encouraged to file complaints through any of the program’s multiple channels, and many are about more mundane problems like payments and disagreements. But sexual assault and harassment are perennial issues. Last year, there was a small upward spike in sexual harassment complaints by people working for farms that signed onto the FFP—11 total. Five supervisors were terminated and banned from farms in the program, one received a final warning, and others were disciplined and retrained. As the culture of reporting takes off, it’s possible that more people have become comfortable speaking up.
For example, in 2018, nearly 70 percent of sexual harassment complaints in the program were from Haitian workers. Although they represented less than 20 percent of fieldworkers, the Haitians were new to the program and so only recently educated about their rights. The way Rodríguez sees it, other workers’ successful reporting of problems helped Haitian workers come forward.
The FFP has begun to create a culture of reporting problems through vigilantly protecting workers from retaliation through legally-binding agreements with real economic consequences for growers. The real threat of withholding corporate sales acts as the hammer in enforcement of the FFP’s Code.
“Teaching about sexual harassment is an awkward process,” Rodríguez explained. It’s often not addressed in workers’ home countries, so sessions are up against deep cultural notions about masculinity and authority.
A survivor herself, Rodríguez recounted experiences laboring under supervisors who brandished pistols in the fields. Growing up in Mexico, her family didn’t speak openly about sexual harassment. All that she knows about how to constructively deal with it, she said, she’s learned from CIW. Rodríguez is also a member of the organization’s women’s group, co-hosts a women’s radio show on CIW’s community station, and acted in a first-of-its-kind anti-sexual harassment video for the agricultural industry made by and starring farmworkers.
“We’re there to make sure that workers have the knowledge to end what was an ugly situation for many years for many people,” Rodríguez said. “It’s no longer easy to stay quiet or watch what’s happening to a woman and not do anything.”
The day after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers finished its education sessions, the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC)—the program’s third-party monitoring body—hit the ground with audits.
“There are crews on the island. The eBerry harvest crew will be done at 5 p.m. Packing crews start at 9 a.m.,” announced Lipman’s Farm Manager, Tommy Gay.
Before FFSC auditors enter the field, they meet with the grower’s operations team to go over their plan and what’s happening that day on the farm. FFSC auditors jot notes in spiral pads. I listen to what sounds like a foreign language.
Unlike other social accountability audit firms that oversee dozens or hundreds of programs around the globe (ranging from labor to carbon neutrality, organic latex, genetically modified organisms, and more), FFSC is dedicated solely to enforcement of the Fair Food Program. FFSC’s investigators are local and have detailed knowledge of crews, side hand references, and supervisors’ nicknames—expertise they say is essential to the rigor of their work.
Like detectives, FFSC auditors piece together fact-rich tapestries of narrative and observation to get what they call “a high-resolution snapshot” of workers’ experiences and the power structures in the field. FFSC interviews all levels of supervisors and at least half the workforce at any given location, well above industry practice. At Lipman on St. Helena that day, this meant interviewing at least 372 workers. The crews moved from row to row in a heat index of 103 degrees, filling 32-pound buckets with tomatoes, then hoisting them onto their shoulders and heaving them atop a flatbed truck. Occasionally, a worker would stop to drink water from a white cone-shaped cup.
I followed FFSC auditor Tomas Laster down a tomato furrow. He spoke with a farmworker wearing latex gloves and a white t-shirt smeared with tomato residue. Laster, the worker, and I moved together through the rows, alternating between hunching and crouching, as the worker reached for fruit low to the ground. Being at the same height helps mitigate power disparities, Laster told me.
“Have you felt comfortable working here?” Laster asked. “Has the supervisor ever spoken to you in a disrespectful manner?” “Everything’s fine,” the fieldworker responded.
“Any bromas pesadas [jokes in bad taste]”? “Is this a workplace you’d want your mom or sister working in?” he asked, digging below the surface.
Asking directly about sexual harassment can be too outright a question for many to answer candidly, and interpretations of harassment can be subjective. It’s often helpful to ask about something that’s happened to someone else or something workers saw, rather than what they experienced personally, FFSC Associate Director Derek Brinks explained.
“It’s the first real audit organization that I’ve ever seen,” Lipman’s Chief Farming Officer, Toby Purse, said. “You can’t fake your way through it.” FFSC’s audit reports are a whopping 60 pages.
One of the challenges of the audit process is that it requires many people working many hours to run.
“I prefer talking after coffee, but call anytime,” Auditor Jenna Hostetler told a picker as they wrapped up an interview. In June, she handed the worker a card with the FFP’s 24/7, toll-free hotline number that’s answered by the same auditors who are in the fields. Having 24/7 accessibility to workers is crucial in an industry where harvests start before sunrise and end late in the evening.
The hotline creates a roller coaster of emotion for the auditors on duty, what Brinks described as a “steady IV drip of stress.” Complaints can be about anything and come at any time, with most sensitive issues phoned after hours. Auditors also often follow up after hours from home.
On a Sunday evening, FFSC Associate Director Victor Yengle finally reached a worker after his fourth attempt. In 2016, Yengle and his colleague were on the phone a few hours every night for three months responding to a sexual harassment case before it was resolved. FFSC investigators told me there are no shortcuts to the work they need to do.
FFSC is similar to the judicial system in many ways. Investigations can require the testimony of witnesses, the cross-examination of accused perpetrators, and/or interviews with an entire crew about an incident. But there are key distinctions that make the FFP work better with a migrant agricultural population.
Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice and FFSC’s executive director, explained that FFP workers don’t have to travel to an office or sign an affidavit. There aren’t formal adversarial proceedings, and the process of discovery is prompt. If there are sufficient witnesses, the complaint can be investigated by the company and FFSC without disclosing victims’ or witnesses’ names.
Victims of sexual harassment with physical contact don't have to prove that they were touched in an inappropriate place or that the perpetrator intended sexual gratification, as they would need to demonstrate in a legal case. The informality of FFSC’s communication lends itself to transparency, adds Espinoza. When necessary, FFSC has stayed in contact with complainants who have left the state. This doesn’t happen in the legal system.
Espinoza says FFSC typically reaches a resolution about complaints within two weeks. Cases that move through the legal system, on the other hand, can take years or even decades, which risks losing contact with aggrieved workers who may never be able to collect judgment. FFSC always provides complainants with access to the civil or criminal justice systems, should they choose to pursue those. However, many workers—vindicated by FFSC’s prompt, confidential investigations and consequences for abusers—choose not to.
“Workers have seen enough supervisors’ heads roll for things that would never have even raised an eyebrow before—a slap on the butt, an arm on the shoulder. If a worker complained about that before, first of all, they’d be fired. Second, others would laugh. It’s not a laughing matter anymore. Those days are over,” said Espinoza.
Several FFSC auditors said they have been driven by the tangible outcomes of their work. “I felt like the FFP was everything that farmworkers had dreamed of in the '60s and '70s put into action,” Stephanie Medina said.
Since the Fair Food Program started in 2011, auditors say cases of sexual assault have been virtually eliminated on participating farms.
“This is probably, in my experience, the most roundly complete anti-gender-based violence effort,” said Aaron Polkey, staff attorney with Futures without Violence, a nonprofit that was instrumental in the creation of the anti-sexual harassment training video for the agricultural industry. It “cuts off the oxygen that fuels sexual violence, in an environment where it would otherwise run hidden and rampant.”
The 2016 EEOC Select Taskforce on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace called the FFP a “radically different accountability mechanism.” Ambassador Luis C. deBaca said that the FFP’s concept of workers controlling their own program for remedy and monitoring their own rights is basic but unusual—revolutionary, even—because it’s rarely, if ever, done.
“It’s a really beautiful experience,” Lupe Gonzalo told me about participating as a worker and now an educator for the FFP. Gonzalo, a former coffee farmworker from Guatemala, came to the U.S. when she turned 20 to work in blueberry, tobacco, and tomato fields. But she said that she was afflicted by all the abuses that women suffer, especially as one of just a few women working in the fields at that time.
Just as the FFP was beginning, Gonzalo attended a CIW education session that awakened her desire to speak out against violence she’s experienced and witnessed. “That was the first time that I'd ever heard anything about workers having rights,” she recalled. “After so many years, it was hard to believe.” Gonzalo told said she used to be shy and didn’t talk much. Rodríguez said the same thing about herself, too. Now both speak before thousands of people at a time.
Growers who have signed onto the Fair Food Program agree to reflect on their work in ways that can be challenging at times. Lipman’s Toby Purse told me that there have been situations when the company and FFSC have agreed to disagree. There have even been a few scenarios that almost went into arbitration.
“I make no bones about it. I'd prefer to have nobody in between me and my customer's relationship,” he said, when I asked him about what it’s been like to work with the FFP.
It’s clear that FFSC pushes Lipman, since they come from different perspectives, but, ultimately, it’s healthy, and they’ve always found solutions that work for all parties. “Any program worth its weight is going to hold you accountable. They don't wash over things,” Purse said with tempered gravity. “They’re a true partner that you can show your vulnerabilities, and they won't rub salt in the wound. They'll help you work through it.”
Compliance with the FFP has been a lot of work for Lipman. All the farm’s systems are now radically different from the agriculture industry norm. Their Human Resources department grew, and the farm now has its own hotline number. Lipman’s culture is proactive, and they acknowledge and “own” complaints. FFSC’s Espinoza described the farm as “a true collaborator.”
“This company would not look the way it does today if we weren’t partners with the FFP,” Purse said matter-of-factly. He characterized the changes the program catalyzed as a “paradigm shift,” but said that they’d been worthwhile. For example, Lipman has high retention rates for the industry, which helps mitigate risk.
“‘We just want to work,’” Maria Jimenez, Lipman’s human resources director, said workers tell her and “gripe [that] there are so many education sessions.” Lipman maintains its own rules, such as its strict no alcohol policy, on top of FFP standards. But everyone I spoke to also said they would return to Lipman if given the opportunity.
I’d actually first heard about Lipman from Gloria Olivo, a Florida tomato picker, who quit work at a packing house, a work site generally favored over the fields because of the shade and greater labor protections, to harvest at Lipman. “Before I joined the company, I’d always moved from one farm to the next. There wasn’t much respect,” she told me. “People have rights here.” Olivo, a sexual abuse survivor, has been at Lipman for the past six years now, an extraordinarily long tenure in migrant labor.
Lipman is such a desirable place to work that there have been three fake Facebook pages by illegal recruiters pretending to represent Lipman, plagiarizing their name and logo, according to several Lipman employees. (The pages were shut down.)
Despite Lipman’s achievements, Toby Purse described the company’s human rights work with the FFP as “an evergreen project,” an effort that’s always foremost on his mind. “There’s no finish line here,” he said. The complaints the FFP receives have become less severe since the program started in 2011, but there will always be issues to remedy, especially because each farm has a constant rotating cast of new workers who join the harvest each month. “When it comes to people, you can always do better.”
Mirroring the wider #MeToo movement, the problem of sexual harassment on farms will never go away completely. But for perhaps the first time in agricultural labor, there’s now a system with ample safeguards. Under the FFP, workers can articulate problems that were formerly hidden, and sanctions proportionate to perpetrators’ inappropriate conduct are enforced.
A telling coda to Diego Muriel’s predations illustrates the shift that the FFP has wrought. For years, Muriel made comments to a mother and daughter about their bodies—their waists, legs, and bottoms—while they worked and traveled with him, according to an FFSC report. When the family told the company about the farm labor contractor’s behavior, Muriel retaliated, decreasing the father’s bus driving hours. One night in 2013, the family called the FFP’s 800 number, and Muriel, who had violently harassed men and women for years, was terminated. FFSC’s two-week investigation of this case involved many complainants and witnesses. It resulted in corrective action plans for the farm, including an audited retraining of all the supervisors who had worked under Muriel.
Refugio “Cuco” Flores, a farm labor contractor who works at Lipman, agrees with Purse that sexual harassment may never leave the fields for good.
“Things are bound to happen that [are] not good. Either an accident, a fight, disrespect, or harassment,” he said, describing risks faced by isolated people on farm fields. And yet, Flores is also experiencing a changing culture in those fields.
“We didn't notice [how common sexual harassment was], like cavemen didn't notice that killing somebody with a rock was bad,” he says when comparing the current moment to before the FFP launched.
Flores, 43, began working as a contractor when he was 16, and now runs eBerry, one of the largest farm labor contract companies. A former wide receiver, he sees his work as akin to managing a football team. During peak season, though, Flores has a crew nine times that size—450 workers. eBerry supervisors and workers start harvests in Florida, move north to South Carolina and Virginia, and finally travel by school bus to New Jersey.
There used to be a lot of casual touching in farm work, Flores told me. “Hi, mis amigos,” Flores said while he air-gestured patting with his hands, the way he’d greet fieldworkers daily. He says he’ll never do that to anyone again. Flores used to save the first few rows of the bus for female workers, but he doesn’t do that anymore either. Flores and I spoke in a private, tree-shaded area of Lipman’s parking lot. He’d never speak with a female employee alone like that anymore, either.
I asked what changed for him. “The Fair Food Program,” Flores replied. “We got educated, and it made sense.”
*The names of some people have been changed in the interest of privacy.