Nearly 25% of all U.S. farm workers are women. Many if not most of these women are immigrants, many of them undocumented. They help produce most of the food that is eventually served and eaten at tables all across America. The cheap labor that these individuals provide is a huge part of the agricultural economy of the United States; many have argued that the country’s production needs would be extremely impractical, if possible at all, to meet without the use of cheap, immigrant labor.
Despite the importance of their role, many of these female undocumented immigrants work in an industry that neglects not only their basic human rights, but also their rights as women. In 1993, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that nine out of ten women who worked on farms considered sexual harassment as a very big threat in their day-to-day work environment. They have to endure employers who take advantage of their perceived low status, and their ignorance about labor laws and human rights.
Many of the female immigrants come from Mexico or Guatemala, where the sexual harassment may begin even before they arrive in the United States. They face the threat of molestation and rape from “coyotes,” human traffickers who may earn five figures for transportation of immigrants to a farm or workplace. Coyotes who take an interest in a woman, especially an attractive woman, may require extra sexual favors in return for their services. Many female immigrants feel that they have no choice, and those who refuse are sometimes raped instead. There are many cases of women being raped by coyotes, then being left for dead in the desert.
Once they arrive at their workplace in the US, women once again live under the shadow of potential sexual harassment. Due to their status as undocumented immigrants, they feel that they have no protection from the law. Many are raped, or told that having sex with a supervisor or employer was required before they would be able to work. Sexual predators find female farm workers, especially undocumented immigrants, easy targets. Often, these women do not have anyone to turn to, are unaware of the rights they have, or do not even speak English.
In some cases, married couples who work at the same farm or workplace receive compensation in the form of only one pay check, made out to the husband. Through this illegal practice, employers save money, getting the labor of two sets of hands, while paying less than two minimum wage salaries. In these arrangements, wives are left at the mercy of their husbands, and have no documents to prove that their employment, if they require them in the future for one reason or another, such as application for citizenship, or to establish the length of their stay in the US.
In order to address this problem, the agricultural industry needs to regulate and monitor itself more closely. Employers who run large tracts of agricultural land should be inspected, along with their employees, regularly.