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Field laws: A recently passed bill tightens sexual harassment regulations for field contract laborers

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In August, state regulators passed a bill designed to address sexual harassment in California’s agricultural fields—something the bill’s proponents say is far too common.

Sen. Bill Monning (D-Salinas), the bill’s author, said he was inspired by a documentary produced by Frontline and the Center for Investigative Reporting, Rape in the Fields. The documentary highlights instances of alleged sexual harassment and sexual violence within agricultural industries across the United States. All of the cases involved undocumented immigrant women, and many complaints didn’t result in a conviction or penalty against the employer or alleged perpetrator.

“It’s been in the shadows for too long,” Monning said. “Working in the fields should be no different than working anywhere else.”

SB 1087 will require field labor contractors to pay a little more in licensing fees; require supervisors and workers to attend more sexual harassment training; and enforce a harsher penalty if a contractor or any of its supervisors is found to have committed sexual harassment against an employee. Gov. Jerry Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill into law or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill will become law at that time.

Richard Quandt with the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties agrees with Monning: Working in the fields should be the same as working in any other industry, and therefore the regulations should be the same. Still, Quandt said regulations on field labor contractors are already tighter than any other industry, and this bill just tacks on more.

The most far-reaching portion of the bill, according to Quandt, is the additional sexual harassment training, which adds an hour of training each year. He said farm labor contractors already adhere to sexual harassment laws passed specifically for them and have to attend two hours of sexual harassment prevention training every two years.

“I haven’t sensed that there’s any greater propensity in the agricultural business than any other industry,” Quandt said. “It’s disappointing that he would single out farm labor contractors.”

Quandt added that he’s spent the last 35 years working in the ag business, and he doesn’t feel there’s an underlying sexual harassment issue.

“A lot of people are wondering why farm labor contractors should have stricter requirements than any other employer,” Quandt said. “It’s kind of disappointing that he’s passing legislation based on hunches and not what I consider hard data.”

In a way, Quandt is correct about that “hard data.” While several agencies are tasked with policing employers, there are two in particular to which California Rural Legal Assistance sends cases of sexual harassment: the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Data from these agencies reveal a relatively low number of sexual harassment complaints filed by ag industry employees.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data show that sexual harassment charges filed with the agency have dropped since the late 1990s. In 2013, only 39 allegations were recorded by the commission, and in 2012, there were 44. California accounts for 17 of the allegations made in 2012, and 13 of the ones leveled in 2013.

Commission spokesperson Justine Lisser wrote in an email that anecdotal evidence “indicates that there are far more instances of discrimination, especially harassment, than result in charges” filed with the agency. Lisser added that outreach to vulnerable workers, especially migrant or immigrant workers, is one of the agency’s “strategic enforcement priorities.”

Fahizah Alim, California Department of Fair Employment and Housing communications director, said in an email that her department switched case management software in August 2012 and hasn’t tracked agricultural workers since. In 2011, the last full year on the old system, there were 34 complaints filed in agriculture, and only five were sexual harassment charges.

“Many farmworkers are extremely vulnerable and therefore do not report instances of sexual harassment and abuse,” Alim said.

She added that a 2012 report from Human Rights Watch outlines several reasons for worker vulnerability and unwillingness to report abuse. Those reasons include the facts that farmworkers are geographically isolated from community services, desperately poor, have few options, and are very dependent on their jobs and authority figures in those jobs; many agricultural foremen wield considerable power over workers and consider sexual relations a supervisor’s perk; and many workers are recently arrived immigrants without legal immigration status and are vulnerable to threats of deportation. 

Camillia Lanham is managing editor for New Times’ sister paper, the Sun. She can be reached at clanham@santamariasun.com.

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