While the U.S. House of Representatives advanced a version of the Violence Against Women Act that would limit protections for immigrant women this week, Human Rights Watch released a new report that documents an epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual violence against female immigrant farmworkers by employers, supervisors, and others in the workplace.

The 95-page Cultivating Fear report contends hundreds of thousands of immigrant girls and women employed as farmworkers face a high risk of either sexual harassment and sexual violence at work. Almost all of the 52 workers interviewed said they had been victims of such harassment and violence or knew other workers who had.

While the report described several cases of rape, stalking, fondling, and vulgar language used against women, it noted these incidents are rarely reported to authorities because of the victims' fear of deportation or job loss.

Our research confirms what farmworker advocates across the country believe: sexual violence and sexual harassment experienced by farmworkers is common enough that some farmworker women see these abuses as an unavoidable condition of agricultural work, the report said.

An estimated 630,000 of the 3 million people who perform migrant and seasonal farm labor are female, according to a report by the Associated Press. The federal government estimates about 60 percent of those workers are undocumented immigrants.

In most cases, perpetrators are individuals in positions of power, such as foremen, supervisors, farm-labor contractors, and company owners, Human Rights Watch reported. According to the farmworkers, attorneys, law-enforcement officers, and social-service providers interviewed by the organization, girls, single women working alone, and indigenous workers -- many of whom do not speak English or Spanish -- are predominantly targeted.

Experiences described by female farmworkers include the following:

  • A woman in California reported that a supervisor at a lettuce company raped her and later told her that she should remember it's because of him that [she has] this job.
  • A woman in New York said that a supervisor, when she picked potatoes and onions, would touch women's breasts and buttocks. If they tried to resist, he would threaten to call immigration agents or fire them.
  • Four women who had worked together packing cauliflower in California said a supervisor would regularly expose himself and make extremely direct, vulgar sexual references. When they attempted to defend one young woman he singled out for abuse, he fired all of them.

Rape, groping, and obscene language by abusive supervisors should not be part of the hard labor conditions that immigrant farmworkers endure while producing the nation's food, said Grace Meng, author of the report and researcher in Human Rights Watch's U.S. program. Instead of being valued for their contributions, immigrant farmworkers are subject to a dysfunctional immigration system and labor laws that exclude them from basic protections most workers take for granted.

Although undocumented immigrants are entitled to workplace protection under U.S. law, the federal government's interest in deporting them often outweighs its desire to protect unauthorized workers from abuse, according to the report.

In the report, Human Rights Watch calls for strengthened legal protections for immigrant farmworkers, beginning with the passage of the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act.

An alternative version advanced by the Republican-led House this week cuts protections available to immigrant women: Victims of domestic or sexual violence who cooperate with law-enforcement officials would no longer be eligible for permanent residence through a visa program encouraging immigrants to work with police. The House bill would also place a higher standard of proof on the abused immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens and permit the government to interview spouses accused of committing violence, something critics say could expose women to even more abuse.