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Women Coming Forth about Sexual Harassment in the Fields

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September is one of the big harvest months for Oregon agriculture--apples, pears, hops.  It's also a time when the fields are full of farmworkers.....a large percentage of whom may be subject to sexual harassment.  It's a subject that's long been taboo, but a growing number of women are speaking out.

Every day at her job at a vineyard outside Salem, things were the same for Clarisa:

"Pues como chiquita, mi hijita, esos cosas de decía..."

Her boss would comment on her body, ask her out, touch her hair. Other times it would be a  co-worker who would threaten her if she said no:

"Golpearme o cosas así...."

He's say he would beat her up and that he knew where she lived.  She says it happened to all the women at the vineyard.  That rings true for Melina León, a counselor at Salem's Center for Hope and Safety:

"What I hear from the National Center for Farmworkers is that nine in ten women are victims of sexual harassment in the fields, and they just think that it's part of what they have to put up with to keep their work."

Oregon has about 150-thousand farmworkers, a third of whom are women. Many don't speak English and feel they have to keep their jobs because there are few alternatives.  Ramon Ramierez, President of PCUN, the farmworkers union and social service organizations, says that gives supervisors a lot of power.  He says more of the complaints he sees are physical in nature:

"Touching, having sex in the fields, in the rest rooms. It's not unusual for the foreman to separate the victim and put them in a part of the field where there's nobody at and then that's where the problem happens."

There are also reports of a significant amount of male-on-male harassment. The problem has been going on for decades.  What's new is the number of women coming forward to complain. PCUN has its own small radio station in Woodburn (Están escuchando a KPCW...) Ramirez says the station had been running announcements asking victims of harassment to come forward, but had to cut them back:

"We were just inundated with complaints.  The last time we did an announcement we had more than 50 women come in.  That's just the tip of the iceberg rally.  They always talk in the third person and then later on we find out that they're the actual victim.  And it's not only a problem that exists in the piece rate crops, but it's a problem that exists in nurseries also."

(Sound of tractor)

It's been a problem here at Van Essen Nursery in Lebanon, but the nursery was one of the early agricultural employers to try to get out in front of the problem.  Business manager Rhonda Wuillez says other employers are now doing the same:

"I think they have changed.  They are becoming more proactive, listening to their employees.  What I feel has changed in our company is the desire to provide a safe work environment for our employees. It is important to us that our employees enjoy coming to work."

Van Essen was amongst the first to have a sexual harassment policy and training for supervisors and employees, so when two women came forward with complaints, Wuillez disciplined the supervisor. Tim Bernasek is legal counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau:

"It is the rare complaint I see that doesn't have some aspect of harassment.  There has been an increase in the number in at least the allegations of this activity."

Bernasek says he is seeing dozens and dozens of these complaints and he thinks that the grower's efforts are one cause for the rise:

"There's been a huge increased effort to educate agricultural employers about processes and procedures to put in place to avoid these issues from happening in the first place."

Bernasek acknowledges that a series of recent investigations by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is one of the drivers of that effort. Some of the investigations resulted in substantial fines. Farmworkers advocates like Melina León say that is a bright spot because local police rarely get involved:

"Most of the people who work in the fields are undocumented so they're afraid of the police.  They don't see them as people they can get help from, so they won't report and it is really common that they get raped."

For Ramon Ramirez the issue is reaching a tipping point:

"I'm sure they have policies, I mean, this is against the law. Period. I'm sure that they are doing something, but they're not doing enough, and I call on the Farm Bureau and all of the growers' associations to really take some leadership here and really make a difference."

Ramirez says PCUN is doing initial planning for a series of protests.