On César Chávez Day, Honor Farmworkers' and Women's Struggles for Equality and Justice

Habanero chiles hang from a plant in a field during harvest in Merida, Mexico, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. Habanero chile produc
Habanero chiles hang from a plant in a field during harvest in Merida, Mexico, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. Habanero chile producers in the Yucatan region are moving away from using pesticides and other chemicals in order to comply with international standards for organic foods and increase exports. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This week we observe one of the most significant holidays of the year: César Chávez Day, in honor of the farmworkers movement and the hard-won triumphs of some of the most marginalized among us. Thinking about this in combination with International Women's Day reveals the ties that continue to bind them together: both movements are constituted by workers who have endured persistent silencing, dismissal, and disenfranchisement. Yet both movements have also contributed labor that while undervalued, continues to create and sustain human life.

When women and farmworkers speak up about wage theft, unsafe working conditions, or sexual assault and domestic violence, the enduring patriarchy and sexism endemic to U.S. workplace culture engender doubt, often spoken but too often insidiously unspoken. Rather than responding with action, management and company leadership often call for endless dialogue and broader study, as if the brave testimonies of survivors are not credible or significant. When acknowledged as truthful, often they are dismissed as isolated incidents that cannot possibly be part of systemic social problems requiring systemic policy solutions.

Women, after generations of struggle, have finally gained enough--just enough--political capital for "fair pay" to gain broad support. Last year, California signed into law the Fair Pay Act, led by our own Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, one of the strongest laws in the country enforcing equal pay for women. It drew support from the statewide American Association of University Women (AAUW), California Chamber of Commerce and a majority of legislators of both parties.

Farmworkers in our community are mostly undocumented immigrants, ineligible to vote, many from indigenous communities who speak native languages like Mixteco, with little formal education to read and write in Spanish, let alone English. It should come as no surprise that farmworkers have little political capital. Since the 1970's, farmworkers work more hours, and yet wages in real value have declined. They are still the only workers in California who are not paid overtime after 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week, a result of the racist legacy of their exclusion from the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s, a deal brokered between President Roosevelt and Southern congressmen who refused labor rights to Black farmworkers.

The struggles of women and farmworkers are intertwined. Perhaps the only members of our communities paid less than male farmworkers are female farmworkers. According to Census data, while year-round, full-time male farmworkers in the Central Coast earn around $20,000 per year, their female counterparts earn roughly $15,000. Female farmworkers are especially vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment, where foremen have almost absolute power over their workers. And women farmworkers often have to work while pregnant, despite known links to reproductive health harms from exposure to hazardous pesticides during pregnancy.

As women who continue to fight for equality, we stand in solidarity with farmworkers struggling for justice. We ask our policymakers at the county, state and federal levels to believe farmworkers who are courageously speaking up despite immense fear of retaliation that could cost them their jobs or being deported away from their families. Know that for every person who is able to testify in front of policymakers or file formal complaints or be interviewed by researchers, there are countless numbers of farmworkers who have survived abuses and are fearful to speak about them.

When it comes to issues like AB2757, the bill that would grant overtime pay equity to farmworkers in California, and the Farmworker Bill of Rights being proposed in Santa Barbara County, a significant part of the "breadbasket" of food distribution in the country, we stand with every woman and farmworker who has bravely raised her voice. We stand with those who are speaking out for justice, in spite of intimidation and retaliation, and saying, "We believe you."