The rapes began the week Emiteria Cortes Bustos started working at Willamette Tree Wholesale in Molalla, Oregon. They continued, once or twice a week, through the four months she lasted there. According to evidence in a lawsuit brought against the tree farm by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (and Cortes, her sister Floriberta and brother Isaac, and Floriberta’s husband), a supervisor named Jaime Rodriguez used pruning shears to coerce her. He threatened to kill her and her family, including her family members still back in Mexico, if she told anyone, and said he would track her down even if she quit. A coworker reported to the tree farm’s manager that Rodriguez had assaulted Cortes, to no avail. Rodriguez then told Emiteria she was fired for blabbing to the coworker. She begged to keep her job, in order to support her four children. Finally she could take it no more, and refused his advances. The accounts vary as to whether he fired her on the spot or she exclaimed that she quit. For months afterward he called her, repeating his threats.

The same lawsuit contended that another supervisor at Willamette Tree, David Gutierrez, made lewd jokes about Floriberta Cortes and groped her breast. When her brother Isaac told Gutierrez to knock it off, he was fired too. Gutierrez subsequently attacked Floriberta’s husband, Eduardo Crispin Zuniga, with shears; Zuniga fended him off with a shovel. They were both fired for fighting.

Willamette has continued to deny that any harassment occurred. But it recently agreed to pay a $150,000 settlement and establish policies and procedures to address discrimination, report any future complaints to the EEOC, and let the EEOC monitor its workplace for five years — typical terms in such cases.

Until recently, say government and nonprofit attorneys who represent farmworkers, lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and assault like this were virtually unknown in the Northwest’s huge agricultural industry, which employs more than 300,000 workers. But in recent years, says the EEOC’s San Francisco-based regional attorney William Tamayo, “the EEOC has seen an alarming rise in harassment cases involving egregious sexual assaults being committed against female workers, particularly those from immigrant communities.”

In the past three years the EEOC has brought a rash of cases against Northwest agribusinesses, ranging from Frenchman Hills Winery in Othello, Washington to the Wilcox Farms egg operation in Woodburn, Oregon, which paid a $260,000 settlement. In an ongoing case, it contends that supervisors at the Sunnyside ranch of Evan Fruit, one of the nation’s largest apple growers, not only harassed workers but deployed spies and made death threats against those who spoke to EEOC investigators. Two were so frightened they fled the state; others refused to cooperate further with federal investigators.

Employers commonly settle such cases and agree to institute anti-harassment training, reporting, and monitoring. But one, Harris Farms in Coalinga, California, went to trial over charges that a foreman repeatedly raped and threatened a Latina field workers. A jury awarded the victim $1 million.

Agricultural workers aren’t the only victims; immigrants also fill the low-paid rolls of the janitorial industry. ABM Industries, a large national janitorial firm, paid $5.8 million to 21 Latina workers who were harassed and in once case raped by supervisors and coworkers. Closer to home, and in a case strikingly similar to the Willamette Tree incidents, the EEOC recently obtained a $150,000 settlement for a Latina janitorial worker at two Allstar Fitness clubs in Seattle. She’d been repeatedly forced to have sex by her supervisor; again, she needed the job to support her children, as well as her mother. “When I tried to talk to top management to report what my supervisor was doing,” an EEOC release quotes her as saying, “they immediately took his side.” And when she finally said “No more,” she was fired.

But Tamayo and other attorneys who assist farmworkers say they are uniquely vulnerable to sexual coercion and assault. In part this reflects the nature of the work, and where it’s done. “In Washington in particular we have a lot crops that need to be picked by hand,” says Sarah Dunne, legal director for the American Civil Union of Washington. “Workers can be very isolated,” giving abusive foremen a free hand with no witnesses present. “A lot of the men carry guns for protection, because you’re out in the middle of nowhere.” Even in the packing plants, says Dunne, “there are very few female foremen.” Immigrant women believe such jobs are closed to them: “You can’t drive a tractor, you can’t be a foreman. They don’t know this is against the law.”

The language barrier compounds the foremen’s power. Latino and Latina workers commonly speak little English; farm owners and upper managers don’t speak Spanish. Bilingual foremen become the sole interpreters and intermediaries between the two; abused workers may have no one else they can talk to, and no awareness of their rights. “They thought even rape was something normal in the workplace,” says Blanca Rodriguez, a senior staff attorney with the Northwest Justice Project in Yakima. “There are still a lot of agricultural and low-wage workers who think this is something you have to put up with.”

Sexual abuse is one more burden on a heavy load that agricultural workers often bear: low wages, backbreaking labor in the searing sun, toxic pesticide exposures, inadequate housing and medical care, perpetual uncertainty as to whether they’ll have work or be able to stay in the country. It takes an especially daunting leap of faith or desperation for undocumented immigrants to come forward and report harassment to representatives of the same government they fear will deport them.

In fact, the EEOC does not investigate or report their immigration status. And if it finds merit and undertakes their cases, they can stay and work under special U visas available to victims of trafficking and other criminal activity. But this too was information that did not reach the fields.

“We have always known that there was a lot of sexual harassment, especially in the agricultural industry,” says the Northwest Justice Project’s Rodriguez. “But until 2008 we did not see the cases coming in the door.” That year her agency and others launched a concerted effort at outreach, going out into agricultural communities to inform workers of their rights. They found that taking complaints in person made a big difference: “If people have been raped or severely abused, they don’t want to talk to someone they’ve never met over the phone.”

Now that word is spreading and victims are coming forward, will their employers get the message? “A lot of farmers don’t realize it till they’re hit with the bottom line and realize they’re going to be sued,” says Rodriguez. “But maybe it is making a difference to some. I hope they’re taking it more seriously.”

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