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Picking a Fight

news1 farmworkerNew state law aims to curb rampant sexual assault of farmworkers

Activists and elected officials both locally and at the state level are building momentum in their efforts to curb sexual assault against farmworkers, with new legislation and increased outreach to workers in the fields.

Now in its second year, the sexual assault prevention program Campos Seguros, initiated by Monarch Services in Watsonville, has made strides in raising awareness around the issue. Last year, the group educated 2,100 people—many of them migrant farm workers—with 15-minute presentations about sexual assault and domestic violence.

The group, which has built a coalition of partners with nonprofits and in criminal justice, reached an additional 4,000 people this year—informing them of their option to fill out a confidential report should they be victimized.

“We are trying to reach out to migrant farmworkers and extend help to a segment of the community that is voiceless,” says Santa Cruz County Deputy District Attorney Rafael Vazquez, who is part of the Campos Seguros coalition. “They are targeted because they will not speak up. But there are steps to report these types of crimes.”

The progress that Campos Seguros has made locally could not have been timed better. A new California law will require sexual harassment prevention training for farm labor contractors, supervisors and employees.

Last spring, cases of widespread sexual abuse in the American agricultural labor force received national and local media attention, including a Good Times cover story in April. Intake statistics show at least one or two new instances of sexual harassment and/or abuse of a woman in the fields occurs every week, according to a staff member from the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF) who testified in front of the California Senate.

The issue caught the eye of officials like Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), who introduced Senate Bill 1087 last August in hopes of curtailing the problem, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law on Sept. 28.

SB 1087 will also establish new legal authority for the California Farm Labor Commissioner to take action against farm labor contractors who engage in sexual harassment. Monning says the potential liability for companies that don’t comply will ensure that the issue is taken seriously among the agricultural community in California.  

Mike Meuter, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) office based in Salinas, calls the law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, “a dramatic step forward,” but he also says more needs to be done.

“It’s not a silver bullet that anyone thinks is going to end sexual harassment overnight,” Meuter says.

There are many factors that make the farmworker population so vulnerable: language barriers, desperation for work, and a distrust of law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, those same cultural issues make changes, even under this new legislation, very difficult.

Nevertheless, Meuter believes sexual harassment newly mandated training will make a difference in services.

“Training is vitally important in the agricultural industry, and we heard from our clients that there was almost a complete lack of training or inadequate training at best,” Meuter says. “SB 1087 is a step forward. We are on the road to changing the culture in a lot of workplaces.”

New growth

Campos Seguros, which is administered by Monarch Services Program Director Christina Soto, aims to assist in changing the insidious culture of sexual abuse by educating and empowering workers.

“We want to tell farm workers that it is OK to report without immigration implications,” Soto said.

Campos Seguros has formed a coalition of nonprofit workers and law enforcement officials, including representatives from Watsonville Police Department, Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office and prosecutors in the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s Office. Together, they host weekly workshops aimed at encouraging fieldworkers to perceive law enforcement as allies rather than representatives of an uncaring bureaucracy.

Soto said there is no way to show that the presentations are curtailing rampant abuse in the fields. She does note, however, that calls to the organization’s crisis line spike significantly after presentations, and she finds that encouraging.

But even with new legislation, the difficulty of supporting victims who are considering coming forward will not disappear. The CRLAF concedes the problem of sexual abuse in the fields “is in many ways a structural one beyond the scope of this bill.”

Deputy District Attorney Vazquez says overcoming the ingrained distrust of police and prosecutors remains a major hurdle to ensure crimes are brought to light, reported and adjudicated.

“It’s a significant challenge,” Vazquez says. “Many of these individuals are from different parts of Central America. They come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and different states within these countries, and their experience with law enforcement has been negative. So, there is a distrust there.”

Vazquez says he was raised in a family that had many migrant farmworkers, and has first-hand experience with their struggles. He said many of his colleagues in law enforcement come from similar backgrounds allowing them to draw on that experience to build community confidence.

“We make the effort to gain a level of trust,” he said. “I think we can relate to them, speak their lingo, understand their struggles and create a strong and beneficial relationship.”

Monning acknowledges the law will not serve as a panacea, but says one of the most vital aspects of the mandated training is that it educates female workers about available resources.

“We are working with a workforce that is particularly susceptible to leverage by a crew boss,” Monning says. “Because of their legal status in this country, fear of losing a job, the threat of deportation, many crimes have gone unreported. The training not only holds supervisors accountable, but it also lets the workers know there are allies they can reach out to and be protected.”


PHOTO: Santa Cruz County Deputy District Attorney Rafael Vazquez wants to build trust with undocumented farmworkers and encourage them to report abuse.  KEANA PARKER

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