03/14/2006

New Project Aims for Harassment-Free Workplace

The Southern Poverty Law Center's newest initiative, Esperanza, is tackling the widespread problem of sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace and giving immigrant women new hope.

"For too long, immigrant women have been abused and exploited in this country," Immigrant Justice Project director Mary Bauer said. "This project aims to challenge the systems that keep immigrant women in slavery-like conditions in the United States. It is shameful that the sexual abuse of poor immigrant women continues in this nation in the 21st century."

Mónica Ramírez, a workplace discrimination expert who joined IJP last month, directs the project, dubbed Esperanza: The Immigrant Women's Legal Initiative.

The goals of Esperanza, which means "hope" in Spanish, include informing the public about the widespread problem of workplace gender discrimination, educating immigrant women about their rights, and litigating gender discrimination cases against companies breaking the law.

"For a long time, no one was talking about this. Women were too often afraid to come forward. No legal services program was focusing on this issue, and few organizations had expertise or resources to dedicate to it," Ramírez said.

"But we need to know about it, and we need to be outraged. We want these women to have a voice, and we want these companies to pay for the illegal behavior that's being committed in their workplace," she said.

A study done for California State University found that 90 percent of farmworker women reported sexual harassment on the job as a major problem. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women in California alone have been sexually abused in the workplace, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"Every person deserves to go to work in a place that is free of harassment," Ramírez said. "We will not tolerate rape, discrimination or any form of harassment, in the workplace or any place. We're living in a time when anti-immigrant sentiment runs high, and we need to band together to spread this message."

Ramírez founded Esperanza as a statewide project in Florida while working there as an Equal Justice Works Fellow. With Ramírez joining IJP, Esperanza becomes a regional effort. It is the first project in the Untied States to specifically examine sexual harassment of immigrant women

The Center's efforts will not be limited to farmworker women, but will address gender discrimination of low-wage immigrant women in other labor forces as well, including hotel and service industries and meat-packing plants.

Through Esperanza, the Center currently has a case in federal court on behalf of four women at a tomato-packing plant in Florida whose supervisor inappropriately touched and verbally harassed them. When the women rejected his propositions or complained to the company, he retaliated against them.

Ramírez says Esperanza's work dovetails with the larger goals of the Center's Immigrant Justice Project.

"The reason the Center created IJP was because there weren't many legal services available to help immigrants," Ramírez said.

"It makes sense that there's a specific project within IJP for women because the goal of IJP is to serve the most oppressed of the oppressed. And I believe female low wage immigrant workers are the most oppressed of the oppressed. They are foreign-born, they are poor, and they are women. So, they are easy prey for exploitation -- it's like one kind of discrimination layered on top of another."