It’s an open secret in California’s agricultural fields and packing houses: Female farmworkers often endure sexual harassment, or even sexual assault. The perpetrators are usually crew bosses who threaten to fire the women if they speak up. Now, a bill making its way through the California Legislature tries to address the problem by cracking down on employers.
SB1087 focuses on farm labor contractors, those who hire workers for jobs like picking strawberries or packing lettuce for different growers. It would give the state labor commissioner the power to revoke farm labor contractors’ licenses if they hire crew supervisors who have sexually harassed workers.
“Most good employers do want to play by the rules, because they know that if they break the rules, it’s going to cost them money,” says state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel). “I think we can create a greater framework of integrity in the fields, translating into greater protection, particularly for female workers.”
Monning says he was moved to introduce the bill because of in-depth reporting on the issue of farmworker sexual harassment and assault by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and The California Report.
Maricruz Ladino is one the farmworkers we interviewed for our earlier series, which ran on KQED and NPR. Ladino says she was assaulted by her supervisor, after he harassed her for months.
“They don’t give supervisors any training about sexual harassment. They train them about pesticides, farm safety and everything else,” Ladino says in Spanish.
But when it comes to sexual harassment training, Ladino says supervisors are often just asked to sign a paper claiming they’ve been trained. It’s a practice sometimes referred to as “tailgate training.”
Monning’s bill would require more training on how to prevent sexual harassment, not only for farm supervisors but for all farm employees.
Many of the state’s farm groups, which usually oppose more state regulation, say they won’t block this bill.
“[Sexual harassment in the fields] is an issue. This is unacceptable,” says Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League. “Maybe things that were taken for granted in the past – ‘that’s just the way things are.’ No, that’s not the way they should be.”
But other farm groups say that while they, too, are concerned about sexual abuse in the fields, they believe some of the bill’s provisions are unreasonable. The California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Association of Winegrape Growers say farm employers can’t do the kinds of background checks this bill would require.
“We don’t know of a database that you can go and consult to find out if someone had committed sexual harassment in the past,” says Bryan Little, who directors labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau. “There’s really no practical way that we know of for that farm labor contractor to learn that information.”
Monning says he plans to address that concern through an amendment to the bill. Prospective hires would have to fill out a written disclosure form indicating whether they have any past sexual assault convictions or sexual harassment judgments against them.
The bill will come up for a full Senate vote next week.