What Hollywood Can Learn From Farmworkers

Long before #MeToo, tomato pickers in Florida were rethinking how to end sexual assault in their industry—and seeing results.

Workers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images, Thinkstock.

Almost a year after the revelations about the alleged sexual assault and harassment by Harvey Weinstein that kicked off the #MeToo movement, many wonder whether it has actually led to any significant changes in workplace policies and culture. But many low-wage workers were taking novel approaches to ending workplace sexual harassment and violence long before #MeToo. In her book, In a Day’s Work, Bernice Yeung explains the gravity of these problems in the highest-risk, lowest-wage industries and the exciting organizing being done to stop them.

In an excerpt from the book modified and updated for Slate, Yeung explains how two groups of workers—farmworkers and janitors—have changed their own industries from the inside out and why other industries should pay attention.

It was a muggy May morning in 2016 when about 50 farmworkers, almost a dozen of them women, emerged from a retired school bus and shuffled into the hiring office of Pacific Tomato Growers in Palmetto, Florida. They had come directly from the fields, still wearing hats and bandanas, their sleeves freshly tinted a lime-green from pulling the fruit from its leafy plants. Their shoes tracked a trail of dirt onto the industrial carpeting as they filed in to take seats in plastic chairs.

Angel García, the farm’s upbeat human resources manager, stood near the door and greeted each attendee as if he were a party host welcoming his guests. He shook hands, smiled broadly, and called out some longtime workers by name.

After everyone had sunk into his or her chair, García set the stage.

“We started developing a training for farmworkers a long time ago as a way for them to understand harassment and violence in the workplace,” García told the group in both Spanish and English.

The group would watch three short videos showing different scenarios involving workplace violence, and after each one, they would discuss what they had seen. García paused patiently between phrases as his words were translated into Creole for the Haitian workers in the crowd.

There was nothing particularly complicated about the training that García had described. It might sound like the start of any HR-mandated session you’ve sat through at work, yet the training that followed is a #MeToo-era marvel that other industries are rapidly trying to adopt, a novel approach that not only creates real consequences for harassment but also prevents it from happening at all. And all this in an industry often thought to be one of the most dangerous in the country.

In low-wage work in industries such as agriculture, night-shift janitorial work, and domestic work, it’s been an open secret for generations that sexual harassment, assault, and even rape are problems that women encounter at work.

The confluence of economic precariousness, language barriers, shame, fear, and immigration status have created workplaces where women who had been sexually abused believed they had no choice but to try to deflect or somehow endure the violence. The isolation that is such a core part of these jobs—women working in remote fields, empty office buildings at night, or behind closed doors of a private home—makes workers more vulnerable to attacks and creates barriers to seeking help.

While it is not possible to know how often these abuses happen, they are not anomalies. The federal government estimates that on average, about 50 workers across the county in all industries are sexually assaulted each day. In the jobs that hire newcomers to the country in exchange for meager paychecks, such assault is a known and familiar workplace hazard.

So what’s so special about these trainings, like the one that took place at Pacific Tomato Growers? A workplace training on domestic and sexual violence in any workplace is rare. One survey found that fewer than half of employees receive general workplace-violence training, and sexual violence is not typically part of the mix. But every one of the 1,000 workers at Pacific Tomato Growers Farm No. 1 was receiving training on sexual harassment and domestic violence that week, on company time, and in the middle of the harvest.

Beyond that, this wasn’t just typical corporate training to ultimately protect the bosses from liability. Instead, it had been designed by farmworkers for farmworkers, with the goal of making it accessible in language and content for people who might be unaware that there were laws prohibiting sexual harassment and who might not know what their options were if they were victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse themselves.

This was a conscious decision by the group that had crafted the training, a collaboration among the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (a Florida farmworker-advocacy organization), the Fair Food Standards Council (which monitors workplace conditions on farms), employers such as Pacific Tomato, and Vida Legal Assistance, which is dedicated to assisting immigrant survivors of violence.

These groups had been brought together by Futures Without Violence, an organization that has worked to counter gender-based violence for more than 30 years. In 2014, Futures Without Violence launched its Low Wage, High Risk project to address gender-based violence among vulnerable workers in three sites and five industries scattered across the country. Pacific Tomato Growers Farm No. 1 was one of them. In all three, the goal was to generate new approaches tailored to each industry.

“We want the workers to identify with the type of violence they are likely to see,” says Ana Vallejo of Vida Legal Assistance. “The behavior is the same anywhere, but it looks different in the fields, and the expression of it is different. Here, workers can see domestic violence and sexual violence examples that they can relate to.”

Pacific Tomato’s proactive prevention work is due in part to its membership in the Fair Food Program. Since its inception in 2011, the program has been explicit about its goal of reducing sexual harassment and assault in the fields. It has attracted attention and praise from the United Nations and former President Jimmy Carter because it has found a unique way to insist that workers’ rights are respected. The Fair Food Program isn’t a union—federal labor laws don’t protect farmworkers who want to organize—but the model has improved working conditions by simultaneously teaching workers about their rights and leveraging consumer and market demand.

Here’s how it works: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers persuades growers to sign on to the program, which means they must abide by a strict code of conduct that includes better pay and zero tolerance for sexual harassment. In exchange, these growers are given an opportunity to sell to retailers such as Whole Foods or Taco Bell, which have also promised to only buy tomatoes from Fair Food farms. The program, which began in Florida, has expanded to operations in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey, as well as pepper and strawberry crops in Florida. Dairy workers in Vermont have also launched the Milk With Dignity Program based on the Fair Food model.

Built-in accountability for meeting Fair Food standards helps drive its success. Workers, who are regularly provided on-the-clock training related to their rights, can surface complaints through various avenues, such as a confidential complaint line and education sessions. With workers functioning as the eyes and ears of the program, the model has addressed everything from wage problems to sexual assault in the fields.

Farms are also monitored through annual audits, which are an especially critical and effective part of the program. During these site visits—some of which are announced and some of which are not—a team of inspectors meets with upper management to discuss expectations and to make sure the farm is complying with the code of conduct. The team also looks for evidence that the farm has made gains on any lapses observed from previous audits. Most importantly, inspectors interview at least half of the front-line supervisors and workers to make sure that policies are being followed. Workers, then, become a critical part of the enforcement process.

Angel García, the human resources manager from Pacific Tomato, says that the Fair Food Program creates an infrastructure that helps growers get a feel for the concerns and complaints of their workers. “There are farmers with good hearts, but they are not in the fields, and they don’t know what is happening in their fields,” he says. “Through the audit system, we take the pulse of the operation. We are not a perfect operation, but we have a third-party entity, and if they find something, we will fix it.”

The audits are not just an empty exercise. If growers or the Fair Food Standards Council confirm an incident of sexual harassment, consequences are swift and serious. For example, if physical sexual harassment by a supervisor occurs, the farm is required to fire that supervisor. If it doesn’t, the farm will be suspended from the program and no longer able to sell to the dozen-plus participating buyers, including McDonald’s and Walmart.

“When you can’t make your sales because workers are abused, that is a real issue for the company, and it highly incentivizes compliance,” says Laura Safer Espinoza, the executive director of the Fair Food Standards Council.

In the program’s seven years, 35 supervisors have been disciplined for sexual harassment, and 10 have been fired. Since 2013, two incidents of sexual harassment have been identified. The program’s most recent annual report notes that during the 2016–17 growing season, more than 70 percent of participating farms reported no incidents of sexual harassment. “Cases of sexual harassment by supervisors with any type of physical contact have been virtually eliminated,” the report says.

It is within this larger context of workplace protections that the sexual harassment and domestic violence training at Pacific Tomato in the spring of 2016 had meaning, says Marley Moynahan of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who served as a trainer that day. “If you dropped this training into a farm outside of the Fair Food Program, the workers would connect with what is happening, but the reality is that they would never exercise their rights,” she says. Because of the Fair Food Program, there are real consequences to misbehavior, and workers know they have a safe space to talk about it.

A key emphasis in the training was that everyone at the farm had a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment from happening. As Louise Fitzgerald, a pre-eminent scholar on sexual harassment, notes, decades worth of research has shown that when a company clearly communicates that sexual harassment is not tolerated, there is less of it. This resonates with a growing consensus that the onus of combating sexual harassment and assault cannot be placed only on the shoulders of victims. Even in the aftermath of #MeToo, the focus in most workplaces is on helping workers seek legal recourse after they’ve been attacked. Redefining on-the-job sexual violence and harassment as a workplace health and safety issue recasts it as preventable, regardless of whether the workplace is an office, home, or field.

Other low-wage, high-risk workers are taking the lessons from the Fair Food Program and are working to adapt them to their industries. Janitors from California have been meeting with the farmworkers to discuss ways to implement key components of the model, specifically worker-led education and enforcement. They’re also working to figure out which actors within the janitorial industry have the economic and political leverage to make worker-friendly changes to how their industry operates.

With help from UC­–Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program, the California janitors have also created a workplace-sexual-violence training video that borrows from the Fair Food Program model: It was made for and by janitors, with janitors themselves playing the roles. The groups hope it will eventually be adopted for use throughout California by the state’s Department of Labor.

Additionally, as the Fair Food Program was launching its new training efforts, this group of janitors—made up of the SEIU United Service Workers West, a union, and the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, an advocacy group for nonunionized janitors—had created its own novel worker-led, peer-to-peer sexual harassment training program. Under this promotora, or peer-education, model that has long been successful in public health contexts, night-shift janitors who have been trained on their workplace rights are disseminating information to their colleagues. There’s now an effort in the California state Legislature to require statewide training using this model.

“The workers are the experts,” Guadalupe Aguayo, a Northern California workplace investigator with Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund who worked as a janitor and housecleaner before becoming a worker advocate, says in Spanish. “They know best what happens on the job. They know the reality of it. That’s why it’s important to involve everyone who knows these problems firsthand.”

Florida’s farmworkers and California’s janitors may seem like wildly different industries operating in vastly different spaces, but both have adopted similar approaches to addressing sexual harassment. They have identified strategies that respond to the specific economic and practical realities of their industries. They’ve deployed popular education models to make sure that training reaches all workers, and in the process, they’ve made clear that bad behavior will be met with consequences. Importantly, they’ve involved workers in seeking ways to prevent—not merely respond to—sexual harassment. Hollywood could consider following suit, instead of waiting for the next exposé or scandal to drop.

Copyright 2018 by Bernice Yeung. This excerpt was adapted from In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, published by the New Press and reprinted here with permission.