Addressing the Reality of Latina Women and Other Vulnerable Workers

Co-authored by Lucila Rosas, Coordinator of EEOC's Immigrant Worker Team and Sr. Attorney Advisor, Denver, Colo.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently resolved a case involving two potato companies in Monte Vista, Colorado, alleging that at least 13 women, mostly Latinas working in low-wage jobs, were subjected to verbal sexual harassment and unwelcome physical contact. Three were fired for refusing to submit to the harassment.

This case and others prosecuted by EEOC to combat the sexual harassment of women, including minorities and immigrants, provides a glimpse into the difficult reality encountered by many low-wage Latino workers and a powerful counterpoint to the increasingly disparaging rhetoric about immigration in our country.

EEOC is responsible for enforcing the federal anti-discrimination laws prohibiting workplace discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability, and genetic information. With this charge, it's not surprising that as the social and political issues of the day invariably make their way into our workplaces, they similarly make their way into EEOC's efforts to stop existing discrimination and to educate workers and employers alike about their rights and responsibilities under the law.

In some instances, employers, such as the two potato companies, agree to amicably resolve the matter by providing monetary relief to the individuals who have been discriminated against as well as changing existing policies and practices to safeguard employees from future harassment.

Unfortunately, that is not always the outcome when EEOC brings a case. Just last month, a Miami jury returned a $17.4 million dollar verdict for EEOC and five immigrant women who were subjected to horrendous sexual abuse, including rape, at Moreno Farms, a tomato-packing plant in south Florida. At trial, one woman described being cornered in a packing plant by the owner's son, having her clothes torn off, and being raped for a half hour. What happened to her and to the other women is not only illegal but also morally reprehensible.

It is imperative that companies are held accountable when such illegal and morally reprehensible conduct occurs in the workplace. That is why discrimination against immigrant and other vulnerable workers is a top enforcement priority for EEOC.

EEOC's work in this area illustrates, often painfully, that while immigration is part of this country's dynamic historical narrative, recent immigrants often work in the shadows of our economy, live in fear, and are extremely vulnerable to discrimination.

Over the years, EEOC has recovered millions of dollars for women and other vulnerable workers. Just as important, EEOC has secured strong non-monetary remedies to discrimination--remedies that deter future violations by employers and result in positive changes in the working conditions for thousands of workers across the country.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently issued a report that found that EEOC was the only law enforcement agency systematically pursuing workplace sexual harassment cases on behalf of agricultural workers. CIR examined key cases litigated by EEOC on behalf of Latina farmworkers and janitors, including EEOC v. Harris Farms, Inc. and EEOC v. ABM Industries, Inc. These cases and EEOC's transformative enforcement efforts led CIR, in conjunction with Frontline and Univision, to produce two documentaries--"Rape in the Fields" and "Rape on the Night Shift"--to bring attention to sexual assault in the workplace.

The voices of the courageous women in the Colorado case and others underscore the disturbing reality often drowned out by anti-immigrant rhetoric that paints immigrants in an unfavorable light and dismisses the contributions of immigrant workers. Such rhetoric can compound the fear of fighting back. With fear often comes silence, and with silence comes a heightened vulnerability to horrendous sexual harassment as well as other illegal forms of discrimination and exploitation. Our country cannot afford to ignore this reality.