Photo taken by a North Carolina farmworker youth.
  • Courtesy of Peter Eversoll of Poder Juvenil Campesino
  • Photo taken by North Carolina farmworker youth.

This morning, Human Rights Watch released Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the U.S. to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. The 95-page report includes 160 farmworker interviews in its research, with more than 20 of them from the fields of North Carolina.

An estimated 1.4 million crop workers and 429,000 livestock workers in the U.S. harvest and raise our food. Of those, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), about 72 percent in 2007-2009 reported they were foreign-born.

Regardless of whether farmworkers possess legal working visas or are undocumented, various research shows they represent a labor class acutely susceptible to the violation of their human and workers’ rights. (Not included in the NAWS are about 68,000 foreign-born farmworkers who have work authorization under the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program.)

According to NAWS, about a quarter of farmworkers are female. “Farmworker women can feel utterly powerless in the face of abusive supervisors or employers, and with good reason,” researcher Grace Meng said in a press release. “The abusers often repeat their actions over long periods of time, even after some workers complain.”

The report highlights abuses ranging from verbal sexual harassment to groping to rape. Other issues include unfair compensation, well below minimum wage. A female farmworker in North Carolina reported she had worked an eight- or nine-hour day and been paid only $34, less than $4 an hour. North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

Many of the farmworkers interviewed were minors, and they use a pseudonym. As school ends for the summer, some North Carolina students will immediately begin working 40-plus-hour work weeks in the fields.

NC FIELD, a nonprofit farmworker advocacy group, confirmed that some of the girls from the youth-led Poder Juvenil Campesino featured in a recent Indy story were part of the report. In that story, 16-year-old Milly Lima, a U.S. citizen, spoke openly about the sexual harassment she says she experienced at ages 13 and 14 by her supervisor in Eastern North Carolina. When she reported the issue to the head contractor, she, her mother and grandmother, all working in the same field, were fired. She says two young girls at the same camp were being offered as prostitutes to the same supervisor.

According to the Human Rights Watch report, “Even the small proportion of immigrant farmworkers working with guest worker visas are vulnerable because they are dependent on their employers to remain in legal status, and thus are often just as reluctant to report workplace abuses. […] Furthermore, the increased involvement of local law enforcement in immigration enforcement through programs like Secure Communities and state laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56 have fueled fears of the police and other governmental authorities in rural immigrant communities.”

All 100 counties in N.C. participate in Secure Communities, a program that allows local law enforcement to work in conjuction with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to prioritize the detainment of criminals without legal U.S. documentation. The program has been widely criticized for misuse and discriminatory, targeted detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants throughout the Southeast.

“Every day that it fails to enact immigration reform, Congress puts more farmworker women at risk for sexual abuse,” Meng said in the press release. “The least Congress can do now is to reauthorize Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with stronger protections for immigrant women.”

The report calls for a repeal of Secure Communities, as well as other policy changes, including the passage of the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) or similar legislation, which would provide specific funding and attention to survivors of sexual assault, including stronger protections for immigrant farmworker women and girls.