06/20/2011

25 Years After Landmark Meritor Decision, Immigrant Women Still Face Workplace Sexual Violence

It's been 25 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case Meritor Savings Bank v. Mechelle Vinson.

The decision marked the first time that sexual harassment was recognized as a form of employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In its opinion, the Court established the circumstances under which employers could be held accountable for workplace sexual violence committed against employees. 

It was an important development for extending federal anti-discrimination protections to workers. Over the years, many victims of workplace sexual violence have benefitted from this important decision. Unfortunately, farmworker and low-wage immigrant women in our nation continue to suffer workplace sexual violence at alarming rates.

When these immigrant women are victimized, they frequently don't know who can help them. Few have ever taken action to hold their employer liable. The fact this abuse remains pervasive – 25 years after the Meritor decision – is inexcusable. 

These women are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in our society. They often travel far and take great risks to build a better life for their families. But all too often, they're forced to sacrifice their dignity for even a small measure of economic security. Tragically, much like Mechelle Vinson in the Meritor case, they are routinely exposed to a range of sexual violence, including sexual assault and rape. 

It is often a constant threat in their workplace. They are preyed upon by company owners, supervisors, co-workers and third parties, including customers. They are targeted because of their perceived immigration status. They are targeted because they often do not speak English. And they are targeted because they are poor.

The Southern Poverty Law Center's 2010 study, Injustice on Our Plates, based on in-depth interviews with 150 immigrant women who have worked in the U.S. food industry, found that sexual harassment and even brutal sexual assaults by male co-workers and supervisors are a constant threat. In fact, virtually every one of these women reported sexual harassment to be a major workplace problem. Many of these women, who worked in various states, saw it as a constant danger that must be endured for a day's pay.

A separate study published in 2010 found that among 150 women of Mexican descent working in the fields in California's Central Valley, 80 percent said they had experienced sexual harassment. That compares to roughly half of all women in the U.S. workforce who say they have experienced at least one incident.

The SPLC is working to give these women a voice and to protect their rights. We're filing civil lawsuits against employers and others who break the law; educating women about their rights; and helping women pursue justice by supporting them through criminal investigations against perpetrators of sexual violence. We're also encouraging government agencies to vigorously address workplace sexual violence against immigrant women and raising public awareness about this pervasive problem.  These efforts are part of our larger immigrant justice initiative to stop the exploitation of immigrant workers.   

Meritor Savings Bank established that all women – all workers – should work in an environment that is free from sexual violence. Farmworker and low-wage immigrant women also deserve safe, healthy workplaces free of sexual violence. It shouldn't take another 25 years to end their exploitation.