Sexually harassed farmworkers often unaware of rights
Associated Press
Oct. 26, 2005

 Juliana Barbassa

LEMOORE, Calif. - It took Olivia Tamayo six years to accuse her supervisor of rape, and six weeks to tell her story in court. But when she was finished, it took the jury less than six hours to award the farmworker $1 million in damages.

"My life was hell on earth," said Tamayo, her voice breaking as she described violence she claimed she endured at Harris Farms, one of California's largest farming operations. "When I tried to say something about it, the company didn't believe me, didn't do anything to protect me."

A jury in Fresno's federal court in January found the company had not acted promptly to stop the harassment once it was reported and that it retaliated against Tamayo, forcing her to quit. Company President John Harris said an internal investigation led him to believe that Tamayo's case was an affair gone bad, not rape. He said he planned to appeal the jury's verdict in U.S. District Court.

No criminal charges were ever brought in the case. But attorneys with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which brought Tamayo's case, said it is an example of how sexual harassment or abuse can go unnoticed in the fields.

There is no way of knowing how many of the country's approximately 1 million field hands endure Tamayo's fate. But in an industry that relies on undocumented migrants with little knowledge of English or their legal rights, chances are good that most cases never go to court, said William Tamayo, an EEOC attorney.

When William Tamayo, no relation to Olivia Tamayo, took charge of the office 10 years ago, farmworkers said sexual harassment was the most serious workplace problem they faced.

The EEOC took their complaints seriously. Arguing Olivia Tamayo's case - and nine similar cases since 1999 - has been the agency's way of sending a message to the agricultural industry that it was representing some of the most vulnerable workers in California, said William Tamayo.

All recent San Francisco EEOC cases involving farmworker sexual harassment have led to settlements, except Olivia Tamayo's. The first one, against Tanimura & Antle, the nation's largest lettuce grower, was filed in 1999 and led to a nearly $2 million award. The most recent was filed last month against Vasquez Brothers, produce packers in Soledad.

The federal agency has been trying to strengthen its connection to women in the fields.

"Sexual harassment is very humiliating, very degrading. It's not easy to talk about it," said Evangelina Hernandez, another EEOC lawyer.

Despite living in the U.S. for decades, Olivia Tamayo had few opportunities to learn about life away from home and the fields where she worked.

She was 15 with a third-grade education when she left rural Mexico, a pregnant newlywed, for the farms of California where she raised five children and planted and harvested fruits and vegetables. By 1985, she and her husband were working for Harris Farms, lucky to have year-round jobs with housing and benefits in a seasonal industry.

"My world was my husband, my children, my work," she said. "I didn't know anything else."

She said she didn't know what to do, or where to go when her supervisor first raped her in 1993 in one of Harris Farms' almond groves. She couldn't bring herself to tell her husband.

Olivia Tamayo didn't know how other farmworkers might react. Mexican immigrants, often rooted in conservative social traditions, sometimes blame women for their own harassment or rape, said Mily Trevino-Saucedo, a Mexican farmworker who now heads the female farmworkers' group Lideres Campesinas.

Olivia Tamayo said she was afraid. Her supervisor carried a gun and a knife, which he would display as she worked.

She said he raped her two other times, once in his truck and another time at home while her husband worked and her children slept.

She kept quiet until the day he grabbed her by her hair and punched her face as she stood in the middle of a tomato field, she said.

"He was trying to intimidate me, but at that moment, I felt stronger," she said.

She reported the assault and the threats to her employer in 1999. Harris said he believes the case was thoroughly investigated. He said the supervisor no longer works there.

A Kings County sheriff's deputy investigated, but Tamayo had to tell her version of the story through a company official who translated, federal Judge Anthony Ishii wrote in his findings in the civil case. No criminal charges were brought, he noted.

Olivia Tamayo said things only got worse after she spoke out, forcing her and her husband to quit their jobs in 2001. She filed the federal civil suit in 2002.

Since the verdict, the company was warned by the judge not to retaliate against workers. Harris said they have installed a complaint hotline for employees and trained supervisors to recognize harassment.

It's the thought that things have changed that brings Olivia Tamayo some peace on nights she can't sleep.

"I don't like talking about this, but I feel now that I have to do it for the women who might be in the same situation," she said. "They have options. I didn't know I had rights. But they have options."