Photo Courtesy of the Center for Investigative Reporting
Note: In December 2013, this project was awarded a 2014 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast and digital news. It will be rebroadcast on PBS Frontline: March 18, 2014.
In a unique collaboration between the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Spanish language network Univision, the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program and PBS Frontline, Rape in the Fields showcases the stories of undocumented female migrant workers who endured sexual harassment and abuse. This underreported epidemic is growing, as workers too often stay silent for fear of losing their jobs or facing deportation.
The film gives voice to victims from California to Washington and Iowa to Florida, who courageously share their painful stories in hopes of helping others like themselves. The documentary is available in English and Spanish, targeting both consumers and those who suffer abuse.
“The investigation began when a student at UC Berkeley graduate school was covering a story on the agricultural industry and met a woman who had seven kids, not from her husband but all from her supervisor; he was forcing her to have sex to keep her job,” explained Bernice Yeung, lead reporter on the project.
Throughout the documentary, women recount being transported to deserted areas of farms or remote storage closets in factories, where they were assaulted and raped by their supervisors. Besides assault and rape, mistreatment included sexual harassment, threats, neglect of payment and holding workers hostage. The women working at these factories and farms were desperate to keep their jobs, the only way to support their families. Only a handful of the companies investigated in the film were brought to civil court, and an even smaller number were ultimately held responsible for their employees’ alleged actions.
From apple orchards to egg production factories to meat plants, none of the companies in the documentary faced criminal charges.
“There was a lack of prosecution because in the end, these are ‘he said, she said’ cases, even if there is DNA evidence because all it proves is there was some sort of sexual contact,” Yeung said. “Then there is the issue of underreporting the crimes, which stems from language barriers, immigration status, rural isolation and feelings of shame.”
The women interviewed said many of their coworkers were also victims, and those who were spared still knew the assaults were occurring on a daily basis. Some workers did file complaints with their employers. Regardless, the companies did little to nothing and law enforcement officials declined to take action. Many of the perpetrators still hold their supervisory positions to this day, while others retired in comfort or simply fled and got a similar job elsewhere.
One of the companies under scrutiny, Evans Fruit, was the focus of a federal civil trial earlier in 2013. In partnership with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 15 current and former employees sued Evans Fruit for the assaults they suffered by its former employee, foreman Juan Marin. Despite the women’s descriptive accounts of their assaults and the perpetrators constantly changing their stories, the jury did not find the company responsible. Two of the victims are now individually suing Marin.
In another case, supervisors at the egg production facility DeCoster Farms separated female workers into two groups upon their arrival at the plant; younger women, considered more attractive, were put in a different line than older women. Workers cited hearing these young women being assaulted in different areas of the plant. This same facility held its workers hostage for days because immigration enforcement agents were reportedly nearby.
From inside the warehouse, one worker used her cell phone to call her daughter. The daughter told her schoolteacher that her parents had not been home in three days. That teacher drove to the farm and threatened to contact police if the workers were not released. The teacher’s direct action was the only reason the DeCoster Farms situation came to light. The facility was sued for sexual harassment in a federal civil lawsuit. DeCoster Farms was ordered to pay damages but local prosecutors declined to take the case to criminal court, claiming there was not sufficient evidence, even though almost a dozen women testified against the company.
Unlike prosecutors, Yeung was determined to lay the workers’ stories on a solid foundation, so she utilized federal court documents.
“We wanted to make sure there was some kind of documentation related to these accusations, so we relied on court documents, looking at those cases that were filed and had sworn testimonies,” Yeung said. “We also focused on cases filed by the EEOC.”
They consulted the Department of Justice for statistics, but many statistics do not include farm workers and some do not include sexual harassment.
To reach victims, the team made an announcement on a Spanish radio station that spans California, asking women to come forward if they or their friends had been sexually harassed or abused by their supervisors. To gain the women’s trust, Yeung traveled to their houses several times throughout the year-long reporting process.
“I met with this one woman multiple times in the backyard of her house, where we shared meals and just chitchatted,” Yeung said. “I think just the fact that we showed up meant a lot.” Although many women were willing to open up to Yeung, for some the possible consequences were too great.
“One woman asked us point blank: ‘do you think if I tell my story the man who raped my sister will be mad, and I will lose my job?’ We looked at her and said we were sorry and that we honestly could not promise anything. In the end, she decided it wasn’t worth the risk,” Yeung explained.
To complement the firsthand victim accounts, the documentary cites experts including EEOC lawyer William R. Tamayo, U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D- Ill.) and co-founder of United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta.
One of the experts said she realized the scope of the problem when a woman candidly told her, “I want to be able to get through the work day without having to have sex with someone.”
According to Huerta, many undocumented workers are unaware they can report incidents of harassment or assault, and most do not know the laws regarding employee treatment, sexual assault or working conditions. Other issues that contribute to the underreporting of the crime are the lack of lawyers specializing in immigration and sexual assault cases, the lack of federal agencies addressing this underreported problem, and an absence of laws protecting undocumented migrants from deportation, even in cases of victimization.
Efforts to thwart this epidemic include recently government-approved U Visas, which protect undocumented migrant crime victims from deportation if they help law enforcement prosecute their abusers.
Yeung sheds light on a hidden problem, but leaves it to citizens and the government to take action. The film encourages silent victims to speak up, highlighting the importance of public awareness.
The question of frequency still dogs Yeung. “I would love to know how many women this has happened to. I know it’s an impossible number to obtain and I know it is a very underreported crime, but I would love to see a better way to track this issue in the future,” Yeung said.
More from this project: