Study Exposes the Sexual Exploitation of Immigrant Women Working in the U.S. Food System
Thursday, February 10, 2011 4:15 PM

A report, released by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), sheds light on the exploitative nature of U.S. agribusiness, specifically the plight of undocumented immigrant women subjected to rape and sexual harassment while working at farms and meat processing plants. The report, Injustice on our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry, was published in November 2010. The women who were interviewed for the report, many of them from Mexico or Latin American countries, said they came to the United States to escape abject poverty. Many paid human smugglers exorbitant amounts to get them through the desert and across the border, often making the difficult choice of leaving their children behind in their own country.
Among the abuses immigrant women face are sexual harassment, wage theft, and unsafe working conditions. The harassment ranged from sexually explicit comments, grabbing and touching, to sexual assault and rape. Women farm and factory workers were sexually coerced by their supervisors, sometimes in exchange for security, a green card, or a better job. The women’s legal status, lack of English skills, and fear of the justice system make them particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 90 percent of migrant women farm workers said they endured sexual harassment, according to a previous report by SPLC. The women said they tried to disguise themselves in loose fitting clothes and bandanas to avoid sexual attacks. Additionally, the report also found that some women were denied wages, and all were underpaid for the work they did. If their husbands worked for the same employer, women received their wages on their husband's paycheck. This illegal practice allows employers to circumvent minimum wage laws, while keeping women financially dependent on their husbands and making it difficult for them to prove they were working in the U.S. Immigrant women also work in unsafe conditions. Women farm workers are constantly exposed to pesticides, which can lead to birth defects in their children. The women said if they complained to their employers about these issues, they were told there was no shortage of immigrant workers to take their place or were threatened with being turned in to immigration authorities.
According to the report, the long-term solution lies in immigration reform. Other recommendations include: creating a whistleblower mechanism so immigrant women can report sexual harassment from employers; protecting immigrant women who report rape crimes rather than prosecuting them for their immigration status; and increasing fines for employers who don’t follow occupational safety laws. American consumers can also fight exploitation by trying their best to buy locally from farmers' markets.
Cheap immigrant labor greatly benefits the U.S. economy, and exploitation of immigrants is pervasive in the U.S. food system. Mary Bauer, SPLC’s legal director, elaborates on how it is virtually impossible to eat in the United States without consuming some food that was grown, harvested, or processed by immigrants. “There is no one in the U.S. who is not benefiting from this deeply exploitative system,” Bauer said.