01/24/2007

Sexually Harassed Florida Farmworkers Get Justice

 

One of Florida's largest fruit and vegetable wholesalers has agreed to pay $215,000 to settle allegations of sexual harassment in one of the few such lawsuits ever brought on behalf of farmworker women in the United States.

The lawsuit, initiated by Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Mónica Ramírez Guerrero, alleged five Haitian women working at Gargiulo Inc.'s tomato packinghouse in Immokalee were subjected to repeated, unwelcome sexual advances by their supervisor and then faced retaliation after they complained. The retaliation included the firing of three of the women.

"Our clients are very pleased and relieved that we were able to reach an agreement," said Ramírez Guerrero. "While they were being harassed they did not know that laws existed to protect them. Due to the fact that they are immigrants and farmworkers, our clients thought it would be impossible to achieve justice. They believe that this settlement will help other women who are experiencing sexual harassment, so that they do not feel helpless."

The consent decree, the result of lawsuits brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Fort Myers law firm Webb, Scarmozzino & Gunter, was signed on Monday by U.S. District Judge John E. Steele in Fort Myers.

The EEOC has identified several other, unnamed women who were also harassed, and they will each receive a share of the settlement.

The lawsuit alleged that from the fall of 2003 until the spring of 2004, the women endured repeated requests for sex, offensive sexual remarks and physical contact with their bodies. The women, who worked as tomato graders, said they rejected the supervisor's advances and suffered retaliation as a result. They were suspended without pay, subjected to adverse working conditions and either fired or not rehired for a new packing season. Despite complaints to Gargiulo officials, the company took no action on the women's behalf.

The case was filed in September 2005 by the EEOC, alleging violation of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace. Several months later, the Center intervened in the action on behalf of the women, adding a claim of sexual harassment and retaliation under the Florida Civil Rights Act.

Although the company denied responsibility for any wrongdoing, the parties reached an amicable settlement before trial.

In addition to the monetary settlement, Gargiulo, based in Naples, agreed to adopt a written policy against sexual harassment and retaliation by the end of February that includes a reporting procedure to provide Haitian and Latino employees with a Creole and Spanish language interpreter. The company must provide a copy of the policy to all employees and managers in both its Immokalee and Naples packinghouses.

Gargiulo also agreed to train all of its employees at both plants about the new policy. A two-hour annual training for both plants' managers and supervisory personnel will focus specifically on recognizing harassment and retaliatory acts.

"The injunctive relief in this case is particularly important, given that migrant farmworker women and other low-wage immigrant workers often know little or nothing about their rights in the face of sexual harassment," said Ramírez Guerrero. "In addition, even though sexual harassment is believed to be a frequent problem faced by farmworker women, few know where to report it, and they fear they will be retaliated against for making a complaint."