Pinterest A protest in Sacramento, California, in support of a bill to protect female workers from sexual harassment. It is an open secret in these industries that immigrant women in financially precarious jobs — many of whom are undocumented — are targeted for sexual abuse by their superiors.
While it is not possible to know how often these abuses happen, they are not anomalies. Federal government figures estimate that about 50 workers are sexually assaulted each day, and in the industries that hire newcomers to the country in exchange for meagre paycheques, such assault is a familiar workplace hazard. And yet there have been few meaningful efforts to prevent it before it starts. Instead, we expect women with the most to lose to seek recourse by reporting the problem after the fact — but the reality is that if these workers face abuse from a superior, the combination of uncertain immigration status, financial constraint and shame often conspires to keep them silent.
The same unfortunate pattern plays out among farm workers and domestic workers — those who cook, clean and care for families behind the locked doors of private homes. Their vulnerability to sexual violence echoed what I had heard from janitors: Many low-paid jobs share similar risk factors. Every day vast numbers of women — often hired via a complex web of barely accountable subcontractors — find themselves working in isolated locations across the US.
With few other people around — and those that are often battling poverty and eager to keep their jobs — they can become the perfect target for predators. Early on, she says, her supervisor flirted with her and tried to convince her to have sex with him.
She rebuffed him, and he retaliated by giving her more work. His demands quickly became violent. This made her uncomfortable, but he said: Worried about losing her job, she went. When she got there, he told her to get into the vehicle. She hesitated, but he was the boss. She did what she was told. The supervisor drove them to a higher, darker floor of the garage. After he parked, he began to touch her legs. When he began touching her breasts, she became afraid.
Then he took off her trousers. As he forced himself on her, she panicked and froze. Afterwards, the supervisor asked her to put in a request for an extra shift that week, so he could take her to a hotel. He assured her there would be perks: He told her to go into the building first. He followed a while later. When she said no and tried to quit, he threatened to hurt her and her daughter. He added that if she wanted to stay in the country, she needed to keep him happy.
This time he drove them to a motel. He said he needed her to work that night and that he was on his way to pick her up. He later warned her not to tell anyone what had happened — but she would have stayed silent anyway. She thought her family and friends would never believe her, or would think she had brought it on herself. When you need the job, you become the victim. But he managed to find her, either to remind her how much she needed the job, or to chastise her for being so cold during their encounters.
Finally, he came to her with an ultimatum: If she did, he would continue to have certain expectations of her. She was having migraines and panic attacks. She dreaded his next demand. When he confronted her again, she told him she would not have sex with him to keep her job. Then began his revenge. He yelled at her in front of co-workers and disciplined her for supposedly leaving used tissues in the lobby.
Then, she says, he started to sabotage her work, making a mess of places she had cleaned and disciplining her for it. The rapes had been horrific violations, but they had happened in private. Now her supervisor was publicly impugning her work, and her job was still at risk. She felt lost and compromised, but she swallowed how she felt and continued to drag herself to work.
She later decided to speak to the cleaning company about the assaults. She had seen her supervisor try to hug and flirt with another cleaner, so together the two women called human resources to make a complaint, but nothing changed.
The next day, the supervisor fired her. Her nausea continued to intensify. The truth was hard to face: Depleted and sobbing, she sought out the only person she could trust. She was crying and her voice was anguished.
She called Anel Flores, a colleague who was an attorney, to ask for help. She added that she was worried people would find out she was pregnant, and that she would be judged and blamed for everything. Flores tried to reassure her: You did not do anything wrong. Within months, the company paid a financial settlement to close the case, though it did not admit any liability in the process. It also fired the supervisor.
And there are many — who knows how many hundreds or thousands of cases — that remain in the shadows because no one knows. They are afraid that they will lose their job. For each janitor the MCTF reaches, it can take months of calls and visits before a worker will begin to think about speaking up about their problems. In matters of sexual assault, it takes even more work and time.
Across the US, immigration status and poverty are used as leverage against female workers to hold them hostage in jobs where they are being sexually abused.
Labour enforcement is predicated on the idea that workers already know their rights, and thus it is logical to expect them to make a complaint to bosses or the government if problems arise. These laws do not take into consideration the experiences of low-wage immigrant workers and what their options really are if they have been sexually assaulted at work.
The legal system — through filing a civil lawsuit or a criminal case — is often viewed as the clearest way to demand accountability. Workers can also go to their employers or unions to demand redress. Making a formal complaint helps emphasise that there can be consequences for this type of abusive conduct. But these approaches are only part of the solution, and are inherently reactive, requiring the confrontation of systemic roadblocks — such as deeply flawed notions of credibility — that often get in the way of satisfactory outcomes.
Meanwhile, we know that prevention is possible. Decades of empirical research offers clear direction. While there are some heartening efforts to incorporate this research into worker training and advocacy programs, employers and policy makers have largely chosen not to use it.