Our farmworkers are being sexually assaulted and poisoned on the job

Why aren’t we helping them?

By Ann Aurelia López

Source:  Lookout Santa Cruz, November 29, 2022


Thousands of female farmworkers are regularly being assaulted, groped and raped in Santa Cruz County fields, without consequence, argues Ann Aurelia López, executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families. The women regularly call López for help, but fear job loss, deportation and shame if they make formal complaints, she says. Farmworker families also are regularly exposed to toxic pesticides that poison them and cause cancer and birth defects in their children. López is frustrated that their dire plight rarely makes headlines in Santa Cruz County. She wants that to change.

Farmworkers in a field.

Last month, I received a call from a hysterical farmworker who said she had been sexually assaulted while working in the field. Her sobs echoed through the telephone line and were shocking to listen to.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident.  I get calls like this every week. It’s part of my job as executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families. I am what some call “in the trenches” with the farmworker community because I’ve worked with them for 25 years and have earned widespread trust. I therefore hear about most issues involving members of the community. Hence, all the calls.

Unfortunately, few farmworkers are willing to talk about the sexual harassment they face. Studies by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and University of California Davis show 60% to 80% of farmworker women are sexually harassed, groped or outright raped in the field. Unfortunately, few women farmworkers are willing to talk about these experiences. They are often shamed into thinking the experience was somehow their fault. Or, because most of the farmworkers in Santa Cruz County are undocumented — up to 83% — they fear deportation if they report their supervisors.

But again, most farmworkers won’t file a complaint or talk about the experience because they’re threatened with losing their job, deportation, or blacklisting and shame.

We are talking about federal, state and local oppression.  Federally, these workers face harsh immigration laws. Statewide, there is minimal oversight on laws already on the books to protect farmworkers. Locally, no one is paying attention.

The growers are trying to keep this from the public. Migrant camps are located miles from the city of Watsonville so they remain “invisible.” We are keeping the whole issue of farmworkers off the radar.

But we know there are about 200,000 farmworkers in the fields of California. In Santa Cruz County, we have about 16,000 to 17,000 workers. Again, this is an estimate, since no one is counting. Generally, one-third are women and — if the SPLC and UC Davis study is correct — it means 3,300-4,400 people will be assaulted in our backyard without a single report.

Assault is not the only workplace toxin our farmworkers face.  They are also regularly exposed to environmental toxins in the form of pesticides — which our community’s agricultural giants regularly use on crops, particularly strawberries, blackberries and raspberries. Scientific studies verify the devastating impact pesticides have on farmworkers — and on their children.

It’s one thing to read the studies and quite another to meet and know these workers and their families, as I do. I regularly meet the children of farmworkers who have cancer, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities and birth defects.

Ann and child of a farmworker.

It’s heart-wrenching. I wish I could introduce the heads of our agricultural corporations to these kids and their families so they could hear their stories.  One family I know with a 7-year-old daughter with leukemia makes trips to Stanford every month for treatment. The child takes powerful daily cancer drugs. The disease is stealing her childhood and adding untold pain to her family’s already hardscrabble life.  Another family has a teen boy whose left ear never developed. One single mother who worked during the pregnancies of her two youngest sons now has two ADHD boys who are often literally out of control. She works in the field all day and comes home to chaos regularly.

These are some of the highest-quality human beings I have ever met. They are kind, inclusive and generous. And yet, here they are being treated abominably by our community.  This is why I do the work I do.

The grinding poverty these farmworkers face and the terrible circumstances in which they live — including living with the constant fear of assault and deportation — makes it nearly impossible for them to provide their children with the special services and care they need and deserve.

It often feels like the deprivations cannot get worse. And then they do.  A couple of weeks before the assault call, we had a heat wave. Workers called saying they had to work in 108-110-degree temperatures. They had begged their supervisor to let them go home, but the supervisor refused. Consequently, lots of farmworkers began fainting in the field. One woman fainted and hit her head. She had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.   Where was the headline about that?  No one is paying attention or worrying about these valuable members of our community.

I frequently get calls from farmworkers claiming pesticides are being sprayed near their working site, causing them to feel dizzy or nauseous. Some even faint or start vomiting in the field. They call me because they know I will try my best to do something for them and won’t divulge their names.  It’s sad the little I can do. Mostly, I call the county agricultural commissioner, who sends a crew out to the farm to investigate. Because of their fear, most of the workers won’t talk.

Three pesticides are regularly used in our county: 1,3-Dichloropropene (Telone), a carcinogen; chloropicrin, a toxic air contaminant; and glyphosate (Roundup), another carcinogen. Telone is a soil fumigant manufactured by Dow/Corteva and is drift-prone. That means, when sprayed, it can drift up to 7 miles from the application site. When applied, it kills all of the soil microbes.  All of the life is removed from the soil. Imagine what that does to those breathing it.  It is the third-most-heavily used pesticide in the state, with 12.5 million pounds used in 2018 on strawberries and almonds, among other crops. It is a state-recognized Proposition 65 carcinogen that causes birth defects with chronic short- and long-term health effects, including cancer. It persists in the environment and is so harmful that it has been banned in 34 other countries.   Yet we here in Santa Cruz County keep using it.

Agricultural lobbying is so strong that the state Department of Pesticide Regulation recently proposed a draft resolution that will allow growers to use even higher levels of Telone.

Lawsuits pointing to glyphosate as the source of plaintiffs’ non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases abound. Farmworkers are regularly exposed to these pesticides in any combination. A UCLA study found that people exposed to combinations of pesticides simultaneously suffer damage potentiated beyond what any single carcinogenic pesticide can cause.

A full 60% of all Latinx residents in Santa Cruz County live in the 95076 ZIP code that includes Watsonville. Of the 171.4 pounds of pesticides associated with childhood leukemia applied in Santa Cruz County in 2019, 98.5% was applied in this ZIP code alone — as was 2,220.1 pounds of pesticides associated with childhood brain cancer, or 95.2% of the county total.

To date, I have not heard of any arrests of farm supervisors on rape or assault charges in the field. I have also not heard of any farm supervisors arrested for violating the law by forcing farmworkers to stay in the field and work in blistering heat. Nor has there been any accountability for excessive numbers of children of farmworkers whose lives have been upended by exposure to pesticides with resulting cancers and other anomalies.  Would environmental racism on this massive scale be tolerated in North County? Los Gatos? Saratoga? Where are the court appearances, sentences, penalties?

Farmworkers are the MOST essential workers in our community and state. Without their labor, the entire industrial farming system that feeds us would collapse.  We must do better as a community. We must stop oppressing the very people responsible for our food survival.

It’s time we ask ourselves who we are as a community: Why don’t we take a stand for farmworkers’ lives and the health and well-being of their children?  How can we live with ourselves with this crime against humanity in our backyard?

Ann López is the executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families. She is an emerita professor and taught courses in biology, environmental science, ecology and botany in the biology department at San Jose City College for many years. She has a doctorate in environmental studies from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the farms of west-central Mexico and wrote the book “The Farmworkers’ Journey.” She has been widely recognized for her work with farmworkers and was selected in 2013 and 2014 as a Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women. In March 2018, she was chosen for a Cesar E. Chavez Community Award in Watsonville and in 2019, Assemblymember Mark Stone selected her as Woman of the Year for Assembly District 29.     https://farmworkerfamily.org