Harvesting Hope for Women Farmworkers

There are almost 700,000 women, mostly immigrants, who make up the agricultural workforce in the Unites States. Day to day, they pick and package the food that ends up on dinner plates across the country. This back-breaking work goes largely uncompensated and women farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable at the hands of both their male co-workers as well as the companies and state-systems that further exploit them. Alianza Nacional de Campesinas is fighting for their liberation.

Made up of current and former farmworker women as well as women who hail from farmworker families, Alianza Campesinas centers the needs of farmworker women through national policy and advocacy reform as well as leadership development and grassroots organizing efforts.

On November 12, Alianza Campesinas wrote a letter of solidarity to the women and men in Hollywood who, in the wake of the allegations on Harvey Weinstein, have come forward with their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault. On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of women who work in agricultural fields and packing sheds of the U.S., they wrote:

We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country. Your job feeds souls, fills hearts and spreads joy. Our job nourishes the nation with the fruits, vegetables and other crops that we plant, pick and pack… Even though we work in very different environments, we share a common experience of being preyed upon by individuals who have the power to hire, fire, blacklist and otherwise threaten our economic, physical and emotional security. Like you, there are few positions available to us and reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option.”

Farmworker women generally earn minimum wage (and often less), have no health insurance and receive no paid days off for vacation or sick leave. Women are often given the least desired, lowest paying positions and are the first to be laid off. As well, women farmworkers find it difficult to secure opportunities to advance due to a culture of gender discrimination within the farmworker’s administration. On top of being underpaid, women farmworkers—like femmes in what seems like all industries—face gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence.

Pregnant women in the fields are exposed to toxic pesticides which has been directly linked to infertility, miscarriage and birth defects. Employers reportedly illegally pay women on their spouses check in order to evade social welfare payments such as Social Security; not issuing individual payments prevents women from obtaining certain legal benefits as well as ties women worker’s economic security to their husbands whims, limiting immigrant women’s financial and bodily autonomy.

Attacks on black and brown immigrants via surveillance, detention and deportation add another layer to the violence experienced by farmworker women. Undocumented women “are often the primary caregivers for children, making them less likely to asset their rights for fear of being fired or, worse, being deported and separated from their families,” explains the Southern Poverty Law Center. “And because of their fear of being reported to immigration authorities, they are reluctant to report wage violations, sexual violence or gender discrimination, or to take legal action to stop it.”

Alianza Campesinas has launched the Harvesting Hope Giving Campaign in order to fundraise needed financial for their continued work on the Bandana Project, an art activism campaign aimed at raising awareness about the pervasive gender-based violence that farmworker women face at work. Donations to the campaign will support the Bandana Project as well as provide valuable resources to support Alianza Campesina’s civic engagement programs, leadership development efforts and advocacy initiatives.

In a 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, more than 60 percent of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. In a 2012 report, surveying 52 female farmworkers, Human Rights Watch  found that almost all of them had experienced sexual violence. “One woman [farmworker] told investigators that her workplace was called the ‘field de calzón,’ or ‘field of panties,'” the New York Times reported in 2016. “As an Iowa immigrant farmworker told her lawyer, ‘We thought it was normal in the United States that in order to keep your job, you had to have sex.'”



Taliah Mancini is an editorial intern at Ms. Magazine.