From farmworkers to fashion models, worker-led social responsibility sets out to protect basic human rights.
“Never again will we allow ourselves to be silenced as women … We will not permit our children’s lives to be limited by the greed of others because our children deserve a better future.” ~ Lupe Gonzalo, Coalition of Immokalee Workers leader, at the Time’s Up Wendy’s March
Raquel,* 12, is the daughter of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. In March, she and her sister Maria* travelled to New York City with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) five-day Freedom Fast, where they joined 100 farmworkers and 24 children of farmworkers in an effort to bring attention to the group’s campaign to urge Wendy’s to sign on to their Fair Food Program.
The group fasted on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, sometimes chanting loudly, sometimes silently, some with their mouths covered by wide black tape. Even while hungry in the snow and rain, the fasters displayed bravery, conviction, and a grounded strength.
Raquel and Maria don’t work in the fields, although they did try it out when they were eight and 10. Their father disapproved of the idea, but the girls persisted and went to harvest tomatoes one day. “I thought I would like it but after the first day, I was like ‘No. I can’t believe people are doing this,’” Raquel says. “It’s like a nightmare.”
But the girls aren’t just disturbed by long days spent doing back-breaking labor. “Rape is one of my biggest fears,” says Raquel. “I’m haunted by the idea of it.” Maria says she is, too. And they’re not alone.
Sexual Violence in Agriculture
An estimated 500,000 women labor in U.S. fields. On many of the farms where Raquel’s parents worked up and down the East Coast, farmworkers describe coercion, catcalls, groping, and assault from crew leaders, supervisors, and even fellow workers as their “daily bread” in the fields. A studyfound that four out of five female farmworkers experience sexual violence at work. Women are often dependent on male supervisors for employment, housing, and transportation. Claims against harassers are largely processed by male managers, police officers, and judges, and retaliation for complaints is the norm.
Isolating physically and socially, the informal work environment of commercial agriculture on many farms creates a “hustle culture” that threatens workers’ immediate safety and long-term health. In crop work, for example, portable toilets are often placed far from the fields, a tactic that keeps them from taking breaks, said Nely Rodriguez, a CIW leader. Workers must obtain permission to use the bathroom, which creates uncomfortable situations as women find themselves alone with crew leaders. “It’s easy for unwanted things to happen between the rows. You’re in their territory, so it’s easy for them to find and entrap you. I saw this in my own case,” Rodriguez says, who felt corralled because her former boss carried a pistol.
The advent of CIW’s Fair Food Program has changed that culture significantly; alongside the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the Fair Food Program is sparking change for workers and women in many industries.
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