Imagine yourself in the following situation: You are a single mother working for minimum wage in Pennsylvania. You work in an isolated, rural area with very few other women. Your supervisor begins to make inappropriate comments about you as he walks by you. You try to ignore him at first, hoping he’ll stop; you’re afraid that if you confront him, he’ll get you fired. But it escalates. He starts making the comments directly to you, then starts telling you what he would do to you if he could get you alone. Feeling trapped and frightened, you tell him that you’re not interested, but he’s not dissuaded. Other workers hear him saying these things, but they look away — they’re afraid of losing their jobs, too. He starts assigning you tasks in different parts of the farm, things that don’t really need to be done, but that get you away from the other workers. Sometimes, he follows you and even touches you, understandably causing you a great deal of distress. When you finally go to the office to report the assaults, crying and ashamed, the manager tells you to stop complaining and go back to work, or you’ll be fired.

This story may seem terrible, tragic and far-fetched. However, this and similar scenarios are distressingly common among the low-wage female workers who come to Friends of Farmworkers for help. Over the past several years, the number of our clients who are women has been increasing, and many have been enduring sexual harassment and worse.

All low-wage migrant and immigrant workers face serious problems accessing legal and other social services due to language barriers, geographical isolation and fear. As a result, they experience widespread workplace abuses. These workers also tend to be unaware of their rights in the employment context, often assuming incorrectly that existing legal protections do not apply to them. Even when they are aware of their rights, the combination of legitimate fears about employer retaliation and lack of access to legal services too often prevents them from raising their individual or collective voices directly with employers and from filing formal complaints with regulatory agencies or in court.

Female workers in the agricultural sector face these same workplace abuses and disproportionately face additional difficulties, including sexual harassment, equal pay issues and discrimination in hiring and promotion. The female workers we represent are often hired into lower-paying jobs, passed over for promotions and paid less than men even when they do hold the same positions. In piecework-based jobs like mushroom picking, women are frequently assigned to less productive growing areas, making it more difficult — sometimes impossible — to meet picking quotas or to earn as much as the men in more plentiful picking areas. As described above, female workers also face sexual harassment and sexual violence from their supervisors and even from their male co-workers. In fact, harassing behavior is so common in the workplace that our female clients often have no idea that it is illegal. On the rare occasions when women do report harassment to the company, managers often dismiss it as horseplay or miscommunication.

While sexual harassment in the workplace, including in agricultural industries, is nothing new, it is an issue that is presently attracting attention and is generally considered to be a more legitimate concern than it has been in the past. Yet challenges remain to be overcome, including the unwillingness of victims to come forward. Migrant and immigrant women are particularly vulnerable, because risking retaliation can mean risking not only one’s job and the jobs of friends and family members who work for the same employer, but also arrest, deportation and separation from one’s family and community. Employers and supervisors rely on and exploit this fear.

Unfortunately, the fear that a worker’s immigration status will be used against him or her if he or she speaks out is not unfounded. In fact, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a report, “Cultivating Fear,” documenting the scope and prevalence of sexual violence and sexual harassment of female workers in the agricultural sector and the pervasiveness of the fear that stops women from reporting these abuses. The report is available at www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0512ForUpload_1.pdf.

Liz Chacko, a staff attorney at Friends of Farmworkers since 2006, represented a client in one of the sexual harassment cases documented in the Human Rights Watch report. That case involved a federal harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by FOF and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against a large apple growers’ cooperative in Adams County, Pa. The class action suit charged that female farmworkers at an apple processing plant were subjected to severe sexual harassment by male co-workers, harassed because of their Mexican national origin, and that some women were wrongfully disciplined or reassigned in retaliation for complaining about the abusive treatment. The cooperative ultimately agreed to pay $300,000 to the workers and provide significant remedial relief to settle the lawsuit. See the EEOC’s press release at www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/archive/9-22-09a.html.

While the report rightly emphasizes the fact that all workers are protected by and entitled to remedies under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the reality of the workplace tells a different story. As the HRW report notes, despite its irrelevance to plaintiffs’ eligibility for many legal protections, there is no guarantee that the employer will not bring up the worker’s immigration status during the proceedings. While Chacko’s practice, for example, is to file a motion in limine to prevent the issue from being raised, some judges may nevertheless permit that line of questioning. Some employers will inquire about a worker’s immigration status to influence judges and juries, to intimidate plaintiffs into settling or dismissing the case and to deter future complaints, effectively silencing victims of sexual harassment and workplace violence.

The silencing and victimization of any one group is a problem that affects all workers — U.S. citizens and legal residents, visa holders and undocumented workers alike — and also the many employers who do treat their workers well. When one class of workers is easily exploited, employers can pay them less than others and spend less on their safety and benefits, undercutting the rest of the labor market and unfairly benefiting exploitative employers over those who follow the rules. Protecting the right of female farmworkers to work in a safe environment free from harassment and other abuses helps protect all workers and many small businesses.

In order to keep Pennsylvania families and communities strong, it is imperative that female workers have access to assistance with sexual harassment and other employment-related problems. Friends of Farmworkers is committed to providing legal help and support to workers. Because we do not receive Legal Services Corp. funding, which would restrict us from representing the most vulnerable undocumented segment of the migrant worker population, we are able to provide assistance to all workers, regardless of immigration status.

While the legal representation and community education Friends of Farmworkers provides is a critical part of protecting workers, we cannot and do not do it alone. The workers we assist also seek support from community leaders, churches, schools and community centers. We hope that as more Pennsylvanians learn more about the difficulties farmworkers face, we can continue to work toward a state that is safer and more productive for all workers. We all enjoy the mushrooms, apples and blueberries our local Pennsylvania farms are known for. As a community, we should protect the people who the local economy depends upon to pick and pack these foods before they reach our tables.

Friends of Farmworkers is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit legal services organization. We work to improve the living and working conditions of vulnerable, low-wage farmworkers, mushroom workers, landscaping workers and food processing workers throughout the state through legal services, community education and advocacy.

Friends of Farmworkers welcomes both law student and attorney volunteers, particularly those with Spanish language skills. For further information, including how to volunteer or contribute, contact Meredith Rapkin, executive director, at 215-733-0878.

Thanks to staff attorneys Stephanie Dorenbosch and Chacko and legal intern Vanessa Stine for their much-needed assistance with this piece.

Meredith Rapkin is the executive director of Friends of Farmworkers. She also serves as a consulting attorney to the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia. Contact her at mrapkin@friendsfw.org.