Women Are Speaking Up About Systemic Abuse in the US Food Industry

Mily Treviño-Sauceda was seven months pregnant when the California grape farm she was employed at as a seasonal field worker summarily fired her. “I had been working already for three months when they noticed I was pregnant and laid me off, just like that,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that was discrimination. They could have given me a [lighter] job, like stamping fruit boxes, but that was not given to me as an option.”

This kind of discrimination is just one of the many “layers of oppression” women who grow, harvest, pack, and process much of our food are subjected to, says Treviño-Sauceda, 60, co-founder and co-executive director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (National Alliance of Farmworker Women), which aims to end workplace exploitation of farmworker women and all farmworkers.

In addition to the discrimination she faced when pregnant, Treviño-Sauceda personally experienced many other indignities during her years as an active farmworker, including repeated sexual harassment, which is so widespread in the farming sector that one 2010 study found that four out of five women farmworkers in the US have experienced sexual harassment or abuse at the hands of male coworkers and supervisors.

“The first time it happened to me, I was a teenager,” Treviño-Sauceda says. “I was lucky I was not raped. It was only because I was working close to my brother and my dad, but I was still harassed.”

It was experiences like these that prompted Treviño-Sauceda, whose family was already active in the farm labor movement, to eventually focus on issues women farmworkers face. In the 1980s, she cofounded Mujeres Mexicanas (Mexican Women) in Coachella Valley where she lives, and in 1992 she cofounded Líderes Campesinas (Women Farmworker Leaders) — the first state-based farmworker women’s organization that demanded economic justice, equal rights, and safe and healthy workplaces for women. To this day, Treviño-Sauceda continues to work tirelessly to inform the United States’ 500,000 women farmworkers about their rights and to help them have the courage to tell their stories. “If people don’t know their rights, they are not going to speak up,” she says.

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The US food system is the largest employer in this country. Around 21.5 million people work to put food on our tables — producing food on farms and fisheries; slicing, dicing, freezing, and drying it; processing it in factories; packing it in warehouses; trucking it to distant destinations; selling it at grocery stores; and cooking and serving it at restaurants.

This massive workforce, which depends heavily on immigrant labor, is also the lowest-paid and most exploited one in the nation. Poor wages, averaging $10 per hour nationwide, mean an impoverished and hungry workforce — some 4.3 million US food workers lack food security. The legal protections extended to these workers are few and those that exist are rarely enforced.

Women, who comprise about one-third (a little over 7 million), of this workforce, are, no surprise, the most marginalized of the lot. Not only are they routinely bullied by managers, overworked, and harassed by both superiors and coworkers, they are also penalized for their gender when it comes to earnings, with women of color paying an even higher penalty. According to a 2016 report by Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative, for every dollar paid to a White man, White, Latina, and Black women earn 47, 45, and 42 cents, respectively, while Asian and Native American women earned 58 and 36 cents, respectively.

Yet, most of these women suffer in silence. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, due to the multiple barriers they face — including fear, shame, lack of information about their rights, lack of resources, poverty, cultural pressures, language access, and, for some, their status as undocumented immigrants — until recently few women ever came forward to seek justice for their sufferings.

Sexual harassment, especially, is so commonplace that most women view it as a peril that comes with the job and has to be tolerated. In the mid-1990s, for instance, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that “hundreds, if not thousands, of women [farmworkers in California] had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors.” The harassment was so widespread that the women referred to the fields as “fil de calzon,” or the “fields of panties.” Similarly, in Florida women farmworkers referred to the fields as the “green motels.”

Treviño-Sauceda says that things haven’t improved much since then. In fact, she says, it’s especially bad now given the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants. About 70 percent of farmworkers in the US were born in another country, and about two-thirds of these foreign-born farmworkers are undocumented. Recent immigrants play a critical role in producing our food but their position in this country is more precarious than ever.

“Right now everyone is afraid [of being deported],” Treviño-Sauceda says. Women who are recent immigrants are especially vulnerable, she says. Not only do most of them not speak English, they have little idea about what rights and protections they have, and often have to rely on their male supervisors for everything from housing to transportation to toilet breaks. “Then they watch TV and see all the horrendous things that are happening to immigrants and they don’t want to speak up,” she says. “There are many more single women in the fields now, and they are afraid, and their crew leaders know that they are vulnerable, that they want to keep their jobs.”

If the fields are bad for women, they don’t fare much better at restaurants either, where, as in most workplaces, women tend to get stuck in lower positions while men hold most of the managerial jobs. Here’s some dismal data about restaurant workplaces: Only 2.3 percent of women (some 1.7 million) in the US work as servers in the restaurant industry, but more than 14 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC come from restaurant employees. Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United), a national organization of restaurant workers, says over two-thirds of women in the industry have experienced sexual harassment on the job. This extreme harassment can be traced largely to the subminimum wage system. In 43 states, restaurant workers who receive tips are paid a lower wage, some as low as the $2.13 per hour minimum wage set by the federal government for tipped workers. Under these conditions, women workers have little leverage to push back against inappropriate customer behavior.

Gemma Rossi, 33, who has worked in restaurants industry for 15 years, says that income stability can be hard in the industry. “Finding a place that you can find solid, super-good income is really difficult. When I have found that, there’s often things that come along with it. There’s a price to pay,” she says.

The longest time Rossi worked at one place was five years. She says the pay at that particular restaurant was very good and consistent. The servers were all female. “We were blatantly told to wear makeup, to alter how we were dressed, all sorts of things like that,” she describes. “If customers made rude or lewd comments, which happened quite often, and you complained to management, it was shrugged off and we were encouraged in a passive way to deal with it. It’s the culture of restaurants to laugh those things off. People often joke: ‘Better make that money when you’re wearing something tight.’ I dealt with it for as long as I could and then moved on.”

In January this year, Rossi, who lives in New York City, started participating in ROC United’s One Fair Wage campaign. The campaign is working to pass legislation in cities and states around the US requiring restaurants to pay at least the regular minimum wage. The seven states that have eliminated the lower wage for tipped workers have half the rate of sexual harassment as the 43 states with lower wages for tipped workers. (New York isn’t one of these seven, though Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a proposal to eliminate the subminimum wage.)

“I’ve spoken at public hearings with the state labor commissioner and at a press conference with [actor] Amy Poehler,” says Rossi. “I think [participating in the campaign] has helped me … be less of a passive worker.” Rossi is currently staying home to care for her six-month-old daughter and continue her studies while her husband, who is also a restaurant worker, supports their small family. “It makes me feel excited to get back in to working. I feel like I will be a different worker. I don’t have to be as passive as in the last 15 years.”

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Despite setbacks under the current administration, the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements are undeniably shaking things up in the food and farming industries. Many women in the restaurant industry are stepping forward to speak out against famous chefs who have allegedly harassed them, and ROC chapters across the nation have been organizing #NotOntheMenu rallies and actions demanding an end to sexual harassment. Meanwhile, initiatives like the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) Fair Food Program are helping improve the lives of women farmworkers.

The Fair Food Program, especially, offers a new, immigrant worker-led model for protecting low-wage workers’ rights. The groundbreaking program asks large food companies to pay a penny more per pound of produce and to purchase only from growers that are implementing a human rights-based Code of Conduct. In turn, growers are asked to pass the penny along to agricultural workers in their regular paychecks and to implement the Fair Food Code of Conduct on their farms. Since 2010, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange and over a dozen purchasers, including Whole Foods, have signed on to the Fair Food Program. The program’s latest annual report says that since it started in 2011, “cases of sexual harassment by supervisors [on participating farms] with any type of physical contact have been virtually eliminated, with only one such case found since 2013.”

Such initiatives, though not foolproof, offer hope for a better future for women in the food industry. “It took us a long time to start talking, but what we have found is that the more we talk, the more it helps,” Treviño-Sauceda says. “Many women have internalized this kind of oppression and abuse. It has become so normal [to some of us] that instead of supporting each other we often start judging each other … We need to understand that to stop these kinds of abuses we also need to support each other.”