Farmhands, maids and do­mes­tic work­ers say #MeToo

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY TARA MURTHA

More than seven months since #MeToo was reignited, we’re still hear­ing an out­pour­ing of sto­ries from sur­vivors of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and rape — ex­pe­ri­ences that may or may not count as such ac­cord­ing to tech­ni­cal­i­ties of the law. How these sto­ries are per­ceived and re­sponded to — or not — re­veals the long shad­ows cast by bi­ases built into the le­gal sys­tem. Ber­nice Ye­ung’s new book, “In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Against Amer­ica’s Most Vul­ner­a­ble Work­ers,” shines a light into these shad­ows to ex­pose gen­er­a­tions of sex­ual abuse suf­fered dis­pro­por­tion­ately by low-in­come im­mi­grant women and the ef­forts to stop it.

The book up­dates and ex­pands two ma­jor re­port­ing projects. In 2013, Ye­ung, an in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist for Re­veal at the Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing, was part of a team that pro­duced the award-win­ning re­port “Rape in the Fields,” which ex­posed ram­pant sex­ual as­sault of agri­cul­tural work­ers. In an­other ex­posé, “Rape on the Night Shift” (2015), Ye­ung and her team re­vealed that women clean­ing empty build­ings in the mid­dle of the night were as­saulted with lit­tle or no re­course.

For “In a Day’s Work,” Ye­ung widens her fo­cus to in­clude do­mes­tic work­ers who per­form “the in­ti­mate and in­vis­i­ble work that hap­pens in some­one else’s bed­room, bath­room, and kitchen.” Do­mes­tic la­bor­ers typ­i­cally share the same risk fac­tors as women in the agri­cul­tural and jan­i­to­rial in­dus­tries, but they are even more vul­ner­a­ble be­cause in many cases they have been ex­cluded from fed­eral la­bor laws and of­ten live with their abusers.

Ye­ung’s re­port­ing achieves a balance rare in pub­lic in­ter­est jour­nal­ism: She tells com­pelling sto­ries that il­lus­trate sys­temic prob­lems with­out re­duc­ing peo­ple to mere play­ers in a le­gal ar­gu­ment. She skill­fully knits case stud­ies into rig­or­ous pol­icy anal­y­sis. Most im­por­tant, Ye­ung traces paths to­ward progress be­yond merely rais­ing aware­ness. For ex­am­ple, she high­lights promis­ing ev­i­dence-based ef­forts while ac­knowl­edg­ing “the cot­tage in­dus­try” of in­ef­fec­tive work­place com­pli­ance train­ing. She brings us to a train­ing for work­ers at Pa­cific Tomato Grow­ers in Florida fo­cused on ad­dress­ing do­mes­tic and sex­ual vi­o­lence. The pro­gram was unique, Ye­ung writes, be­cause in­stead of sim­ply trans­lat­ing boil­er­plate ma­te­ri­als, it was de­signed by farm­work­ers for farm­work­ers in their na­tive tongue, us­ing ex­am­ples of sex­ual ha­rass­ment field­work­ers can rec­og­nize. Ye­ung also de­scribes the Fair Food Pro­gram, an ef­fort that lever­ages con­sumer power by re­ward­ing re­tail­ers that pur­chase pro­duce from farms fo­cused on pre­vent­ing sex­ual ha­rass­ment as part of work­place safety.

She also il­lus­trates the high stakes her sources must con­sider be­fore speak­ing about abuse. For ex­am­ple, the book be­gins with the story of a woman called Rosa, who has filed a sex­ual ha­rass­ment law­suit. A farm su­per­vi­sor also raped Rosa’s sis­ter while press­ing gar­den­ing shears to her throat. He threat­ened to fire her sis­ter and brother, and to have the chil­dren she works to sup­port back in Mex­ico killed if she fought back or told. Rosa hes­i­tantly talked to the re­porters, then stopped, ex­plain­ing her de­ci­sion by show­ing the re­porters pho­tos of her chil­dren.

“This case ex­em­pli­fied the phe­nom­e­non our re­port­ing team was seek­ing to un­cover,” Ye­ung writes. “How im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus and poverty are lever­aged against fe­male work­ers to hold them hostage in jobs where they are be­ing sex­u­ally abused . . . . Be­cause there is no as­sur­ance that speak­ing out will be met with pro­tec­tion from fu­ture or col­lat­eral harm, the only ra­tio­nal thing to do is say noth­ing. After meet­ing Rosa, I came to un­der­stand why so many sex­u­ally abused work­ers have for so long abided in si­lence.” Ye­ung’s book none­the­less helps break that si­lence.

We learn a lot from the women able to speak to Ye­ung. Ge­orgina Hernán­dez is an un­doc­u­mented ho­tel cleaner who couldn’t read or write when her su­per­vi­sor started trap­ping her in pri­vate spa­ces, where he would as­sault her, then threaten to hurt her and her daugh­ter and have her de­ported if she dodged him or re­tal­i­ated. “There’s no way to de­fend your­self,” Hernán­dez said. “There’s no way to say no. When you need the job, you be­come the vic­tim of oth­ers . . . . You deal with it be­cause you need the job.” Hernán­dez was even­tu­ally able to es­cape the abuse and file a suc­cess­ful law­suit thanks to the help of the Main­te­nance Co­op­er­a­tion Trust Fund, a Cal­i­for­nia-based watch­dog group de­voted to work­ers rights in the jan­i­to­rial in­dus­try.

Ye­ung writes of “a dis­cor­dant re­al­ity” of do­mes­tic work­ers who, “in search of the Amer­i­can dream,” take on “one in only a hand­ful of jobs in the United States that has been ex­cluded from laws meant to shield work­ers from abuse.” As Ye­ung ex­plains, agri­cul­tural and do­mes­tic la­bor­ers were ex­cluded from fed­eral pro­tec­tions as a way to avoid pro­tect­ing black work­ers by proxy. Do­mes­tic la­bor was fur­ther de­val­ued and de­graded be­cause black women dis­pro­por­tion­ately held those jobs.

Though it was be­gun well be­fore the lat­est wave of the Me Too move­ment, “In a Day’s Work” none­the­less lands at a per­fect time to in­form the con­ver­sa­tion. In Novem­ber, Alianza Na­cional de Cam­pesinas, the na­tional farm­worker women’s al­liance, wrote an open let­ter ex­press­ing sol­i­dar­ity with Hol­ly­wood ac­tresses who spoke out about sex­ual abuse and ha­rass­ment. “We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a per­va­sive prob­lem in your in­dus­try,” they wrote. “Sadly, we’re not sur­prised be­cause it’s a re­al­ity we know far too well.” A group of women work­ing in film, tele­vi­sion and the­ater re­sponded with a let­ter an­nounc­ing the launch of the Time’s Up Le­gal De­fense Fund to help de­fray le­gal costs for women seek­ing help. Given that white women with priv­i­lege have all too of­ten marginal­ized women of color in move­ments to­ward lib­er­a­tion, the let­ter was an as­tound­ing ges­ture.

So what’s next? The ques­tion is of­ten asked as if #MeToo is some kind of run­away train. “In a Day’s Work” shows that in fact we are in con­trol of what hap­pens next: With vigorous re­port­ing, we can par­lay the mo­men­tum of #MeToo into real sys­temic change. To do that, it is ur­gently nec­es­sary to sup­port the ef­forts of Amer­ica’s most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers, who are al­ready lead­ing the way, for the col­lec­tive good.

Tara Murtha is a free­lance writer, the au­thor of the book “Ode to Bil­lie Joe” and the di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Women’s Law Project, a non­profit le­gal or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Penn­syl­va­nia.

By Ber­nice Ye­ung. The New Press. 214 pp. $25.99

IN A DAY’S WORK The Fight to End Sex­ual Vi­o­lence Against Amer­ica’s Most Vul­ner­a­ble Work­ers

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