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Picking our fruit, women endure daily sexual harassment

KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter

More women are speaking out about sexual abuse and harassment as part of the renewed #MeToo movement.

But for the women picking the fruits and vegetables we buy at local supermarkets, talking about daily abuse isn’t easy.

Rosalinda Guillen is the executive director at Community to Community, a non-profit that works for justice in the agricultural and food industry.

She spoke with KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel about the abuses many women face when working in food production around the Puget Sound region, where supervisors hold all the power and women workers are afraid to even walk to the bathrooms alone.

“It all goes back to the fact of how people look at farm workers,” Guillen said. “We’re invisible in the community.”

This interview was part of a special episode of The Record. See more here: #MeToo has us asking: What's next?

Cecilia DeLeon, a volunteer with Community to Community, experienced sexual abuse when working on berry farms in Whatcom County in her early teens.

“I was still innocent at that age,” DeLeon said. “I didn’t know what was inappropriate touch … I just stayed quiet, I guess you could say, for about the first year that it happened.”

DeLeon said she’s speaking out now because she doesn’t want other girls and women to experience what she did.

“I was a young girl once,” she said. “And to go through what I had to go through — it wasn’t OK. If I could be that person now, to speak out for those young girls who are undocumented, who are out there. That’s something I want to do.

"I have a daughter, and I wouldn’t want it to happen to her.”

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Guillen said the abuse and harassment is almost an everyday occurrence for farm workers. And it’s worse if the work is being done in isolated areas or among plants that grow high and provide abusers with cover.

Guillen said she’s glad the #MeToo movement has people talking. But it’s not enough for the women and girls who harvest food, some of whom are undocumented and fear retaliation if they complain.

“It’s a good thing that [#MeToo is] happening,” Guillen said. “But my heart breaks when I see that it doesn’t touch us.

"It’s constant. It’s every day. You’re exhausted. You’re in the the fields sometimes for twelve, fourteen hours a day.”

DeLeon said she wants men to finally take a stand against the abuses.

“It happens to women, but the men see it. The men need to stand up and say stop," DeLeon said. "They’re the ones who have to break that cycle. They have to stand up and take the lead on this.”

Guillen said employers have a responsibility to make sure their workers are safe and that it’s unreasonable to expect employees to fend off inappropriate behavior and abuse.

“It’s like that in every other company and every other job,” she said. “An employer has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that their workers' workplace is safe in every way, shape and form — including sexual harassment.”

She said consumers need to be aware of abuses, too, and to shop accordingly when possible.

“Are people comfortable knowing that women have been sexually harassed to get you your blueberries and your raspberries and your apples?” Guillen said.

It’s hard to know the conditions in which food was produced, but a union or Fair Trade label can indicate there are processes in place to protect workers. Guillen said asking grocers about their suppliers’ working conditions can also put pressure on farms.

“For God’s sake, give us the opportunity to complain without retaliation,” she said. “Even just that — give us the even playing field to be able to complain without retaliation.”

Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.