Farmworkers are among the most hidden workers in the United States, despite the fact that they typically work in open air. The general public has very limited knowledge of farmworkers as they generally work in rural and remote locations, lack representation in mainstream society due to language and cultural differences, and at times fear interaction with law enforcement and immigration authorities. Yet they are responsible for planting and harvesting much of the food eaten both domestically and abroad. They are the engine that drives the agricultural sector of the U.S. economy and generates billions of dollars in revenue and employment for millions of Americans.

Farmworkers face a number of risk factors (discussed below) that make them especially vulnerable to sexual assault. Employers, supervisors, landlords and others in positions of power frequently take advantage of farmworkers’ poverty, gender, culture, housing, immigration status, language or fear of law enforcement to exert power and control over them. That power is amplified when employers control farmworkers’ employment, housing and transportation or some combination thereof. In some cases a farmworker’s immigration status is directly tied to the employer—where an agricultural guestworker visa is in place—heightening the worker’s reliance on the employer to live, work and even be in the United States, even if only on a temporary basis. This means that farmworkers experiencing sexual harassment or assault at work may see their harasser on a daily basis–in the fields, in the employer-provided housing, on transportation provided to and from work or between job sites, and while migrating. It also means that more is at stake for farmworker victims than just their job. As a result, farmworkers are among the most vulnerable to sexual violence while also the least likely to report it.

Overall, there are four broad categories of agricultural workers4:

  • Migrant farmworkers are persons employed in agricultural work of a seasonal or temporary nature who are required to be absent overnight from their permanent place of residence. For example, a person who lives in Salinas, California, migrates to Yuma, Arizona to cut lettuce each winter and then returns to Salinas at the end of the Yuma lettuce season is a migrant farmworker.
  • Seasonal farmworkers are persons employed in agricultural work of a seasonal or temporary nature who are not required to be absent overnight from their permanent place of residence. For example, a person who lives in Immokalee, Florida, picks tomatoes during the harvest season and then either finds other employment or is unemployed during the remainder of the year is a seasonal farmworker.
  • Guestworkers are noncitizens admitted temporarily to the U.S. on special employment visas under the Immigration and Nationality Act to perform agricultural labor if unemployed U.S. workers can notbe found to perform the job. For example, a Jamaican who resides permanently in Jamaica and receives an H2A visa to pick cherries in upstate New York for the summer and then returns to Jamaica when the season is over is a guestworker.
  • Farmworkers in permanent annual employment are persons employed in agriculture to work in certain industries or operations that may operate year-round, such as dairies, packing sheds or certain nurseries. For example, a person who works planting seeds, labeling plants, weeding and pruning trees for a nursery in Oregon is a farmworker with permanent annual employment.

Agricultural work encompasses more than just work in fields of row crops such as lettuce, tomatoes or strawberries. For the purposes of this guidebook, work in the following areas is also included within the meaning of agricultural work:

  • Orchards, such as apple, cherry, peach, avocado, citrus and other tree fruits and nuts;
  • Tree nurseries for reforestation and Christmas;
  • Nurseries including seed production, lawn production, plants for landscaping, indoor and outdoor plants for sale at hardware stores, roses and other cut-flowers;
  • Meat production such as beef, poultry and pork;
  • Vegetable and fruit canneries and packing sheds located on the farm or off-site; and
  • Dairy and egg production.

There are dramatic regional variations in agricultural operations. To provide effective services to farmworkers, it is critical to have at least a general knowledge of the agricultural activities in your local area, such as the major crops in production, the peak work seasons, and the typical demographic characteristics of the local agricultural work force. This information can be obtained from university-based agricultural programs, state departments of agriculture, county agricultural commissioners’ offices, local agricultural employer organizations, and farmworker advocacy organizations.

Although limited to responses from crop workers, the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS)5 by the U.S. Department of Labor is an excellent source of general demographic information about farmworkers nationwide. Much of the demographic data on farmworkers in this guidebook is based on the NAWS survey. Please note, however, that the NAWS data may not necessarily match the demographic characteristics of the agricultural workers in your area. As you plan to implement the concepts set forth in this guidebook, we encourage you to utilize an expansive view of “agricultural worker” that is not limited to crop workers and, depending on the type of work performed in your area, may include people who work in poultry, dairy, pork, vegetable processing, fruit packing and other agricultural operations.

Nationality. The survey found that the hired agricultural workforce is predominantly foreign born with 75% born in Mexico, 23% born in the U.S., 2% born in Central American countries, and 1% born elsewhere. Perpetrators of sexual violence may view foreign born farmworkers as vulnerable because they are less likely to report the violence; they may not know their legal rights, speak English or have access to health care and social services.

Age. On average, farmworkers are young; more than half are under the age of 31. The vast majority are aged 20-44. Youth is an identified risk factor for sexual violence victimization, with youth ages 16-24 at greatest risk.6

Gender. Seventy-nine percent of crop farmworkers nationwide are male. While some parts of the country continue to see men dominate the agricultural workforce, other parts of the country are seeing the number of farmworker women equal or exceed the number of farmworker men. This is also true in operations such as packing sheds and nurseries. Gender itself is a significant risk factor for sexual violence; in the United States, one in 6 women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime compared to one in 33 men.7

Gender also plays a significant role in victims’ inability to come forward. For a woman, reasons for not reporting sexual violence can include the stigma related to sexual violence, fear of her partner’s response, fear of upsetting her children, pressure to be the source of emotional support and stability for her family, and concern about how she will be perceived in her community. Male victims may feel confined by gender norms that prevent them from being emotional, fear the stigma that may come from disclosing the sexual violence, and fear more harm to themselves and their families. Thus, gender plays a significant role in both men’s and women’s ability to disclose incidents of sexual violence.

Family. Fifty-eight percent of farmworkers are married; however, more than half are unaccompanied young males living apart from their family members. The NAWS findings indicate that women are more than twice as likely as men to be living with at least one family member. Fifty-one percent of farmworkers are parents, regardless of whether they are married or single.

Some farmworker parents may leave their children in their home country with relatives; others migrate with their children. It is not uncommon to find children working alongside their parents in the fields, employed either under a parent’s name or under an alias often provided by the employer. This occurs despite the existence of child labor laws that vary from state to state. While some states have federally mandated Migrant Education Programs in place, children living in rural areas are routinely overlooked by the educational system. It can also be difficult for farmworker children to progress and excel at school due to the migratory pattern that some families follow, which causes children to leave school early and start the school year late. Alternatively, some children remain in the labor camps to be cared for by older children, leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence committed by other children, workers or employers. Children, too, may be harmed or retaliated against if their parent reports an assault.

Language. Eighty-one percent of farmworkers speak Spanish, 18% speak English, and 2% speak other languages such as Tagalog, Creole and Thai. Close to 60% of foreign born farmworkers cannot speak or read English at all and only 35% are able to speak a little English. While there are limited statistics available, there are growing numbers of indigenous farmworkers working in the U.S. from Mexico, Guatemala and other countries. Farmworkers from indigenous communities in Latin America often do not speak Spanish or English. Instead, they speak pre-Columbian languages such as Mixteco, Zapoteco, Triqui, Mam and other indigenous languages. Many farmworkers from indigenous communities are exploited due to language barriers and the difficulty of finding multilingual interpreters.

Language barriers often prevent farmworkers from knowing their rights and locating local service providers. There may be even larger barriers for farmworkers who speak languages other than Spanish and English to overcome, particularly those for whom interpreters may not be readily available, such as Creole, Tagalog, Marshellese or Chukese. Non-English and non- Spanish speakers may be even more vulnerable to sexual assault. In order to seek help from a service provider, they must find an interpreter who speaks both their language and Spanish or English, often forcing these farmworker victims to use family or community members as interpreters or to remain silent.

LGBT. Just as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are part of the general population, they are also part of the farmworkers population. No statistics exist regarding the number of LGBT farmworkers; however, an analysis by researchers on behalf of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., revealed that approximately 136,000 self-identified lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals reside in rural California counties and roughly one-third of this population lives below the poverty line. Census data also show wide geographic and racial diversity among same-sex couples.8

Furthermore, the experiences of advocates indicate that LGBT farmworkers face egregious discrimination and violence in the workplace. LGBT farmworkers are vulnerable to sexual violence and hate crimes due to extreme social ostracism. At times, farmworkers who are not LGBT-identified, but who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, or who are mistakenly thought to be LGBT, are targeted for anti-LGBT violence and discrimination.

Income. The average individual income of farmworkers in 2001-2002 was between $10,000 and $12,499, while the total average income for a farmworker family averaged between $15,000 and $17,499.

Poverty is a risk factor for sexual violence. Farmworkers live at or below the poverty level and are, therefore, keenly dependent on their income. Losing a job may mean no food, housing, medical care or financial support for their family in the United States and abroad. A farmworker woman who is the head of the household and supporting her children is extremely vulnerable. Recognizing this, workplace perpetrators condition obtaining and keeping employment on sex; farmworkers are frequently denied employment or fired for refusing or reporting unwanted sexual harassment and/or assault.

Education. The NAWS findings indicate that the majority of farmworkers have completed only a few years of basic formal education. Four percent of farmworkers reported never having attended school, while 5% reported completing some education beyond high school. According to NAWS, on average, the highest grade level crop workers completed is the seventh grade. Given this, it is no surprise that few immigrant farmworkers come to the U.S. speaking anything but their native language. The low levels of education attained by farmworkers and the inability to speak English make the workforce vulnerable to exploitation and sexual violence.

Immigration status. Fifty-three percent of farmworkers are undocumented, 25% are citizens, 21% are legal permanent residents and 1% are authorized in some other manner to work. Perpetrators of sexual violence against undocumented farmworkers often threaten to report victims to immigration authorities and have them deported. Deportation may be devastating and result in a loss of current and future employment, separation from family in the U.S. and a return to the poverty from which the victim fled. Even when victims are documented, perpetrators threaten to report their undocumented family members to the authorities for deportation.

Guestworkers, though present with lawful immigration status, are in an equally vulnerable position. Guestworkers hold visas that require them to work only for the stated employer—the visa is no longer valid if and when the employment relationship ends. Perpetrators from the workplace often threaten that if their victims report the violence, the victims will lose not only their jobs but also their immigration status. These threats are typically coupled with a threat to call immigration authorities and other law enforcement if the worker does not comply with the perpetrator’s demands.

Housing. Fifty-eight percent of farmworkers live in rental housing while 21% live in employerowned and provided housing. When housing is provided by the employer, a perpetrator from the workplace has yet another venue to assault farmworkers. Employer controlled labor camps are often located in isolated rural areas, separated by fences with locked gates, and lack phones, public transportation and access to agencies that can help farmworkers. Crew leaders and foremen, who are the eyes and ears of the employer, often live in the same camp and take note of what workers do, with whom they speak, and whether anyone complains. Lack of personal transportation and the reliance on a raitero, an individual paid by farmworkers to drive them from place to place, can keep farmworkers further confined to the labor camp.

Sometimes employers house farmworkers in motels. In labor camps and motels, employers may place men, women and families together who are unknown to one another. They may be forced to share beds or sleep on the floor with strangers. In other cases, farmworkers and farmworker families may choose to share rental housing to save on expenses. These situations of cohabitation, whether arranged by the employer or out of financial necessity, increase farmworkers’ vulnerability to sexual violence.

Farmworkers generally have the right to invite legal and social service providers to their housing, even if the housing is located on an employer’s private property. However, it is not uncommon for providers to encounter access issues when visiting camps. Work with farmworker legal advocates in your area to obtain tips on best practices for meeting with and distributing information to farmworkers who seek your services and to learn the laws that provide you access.

Working conditions. Agricultural work is consistently ranked among the top three most hazardous jobs in the United States9 due to strenuous physical labor, pesticide exposure and dangerous equipment. Farmworkers are at great risk of respiratory and dermatological illnesses; dehydration, heat stroke and heat illness; and chronic muscular/skeletal pain.

Transportation. Farmworkers face unique transportation-related problems. Many farmworkers— farmworker women in particular— do not have cars. Many rely on their employers for transportation to and from the worksite. Other farmworkers pay private drivers, commonly known as raiteros, for transportation to and from work. Common transportation problems encountered include dangerous vehicle conditions that cause numerous farmworker deaths each year; excessive fees for transportation; poor driver training or unlicensed drivers; significant loss of time traveling or waiting for transportation; non-payment of wages during otherwise compensable travel time; and sexual harassment or assault by transportation providers.

Fear of law enforcement. Some immigrant farmworkers may have an inherent fear and mistrust of law enforcement and other government authorities based on their experience or perception of the government in their country of origin or from rumors and experiences suffered by other farmworkers. Non-immigrant farmworkers may also fear law enforcement based on a past experience. These farmworkers may be reluctant to report sexual violence to the police or contact any other government official for assistance.

Equipped with the knowledge of why sexual violence of farmworkers is pervasive and why farmworkers may be reluctant to report it, you are now in the position to identify and reduce the barriers they may face to accessing your help.

Exercise

  • What types of farmworkers live in my state and my community? Are there migrant, seasonal, guestworker or year-round farmworkers?
  • What type(s) of agricultural work is performed?
  • What is the nationality of the workers?
  • What language(s) do the workers speak?
  • What is the ratio of men to women?
  • In what type of housing do they live? Are there labor camps?
  • How can I learn more about their experiences?
  • How can I help farmworkers overcome barriers to accessing my professional services?
  • Are there any local organizations conducting outreach to farmworkers with whom I could work or with whom I could cross-train?