Working-Class Voices: First Person Accounts of Life and Work

Women Farmworkers Fight to Secure Their Rights and End Sexual Harassment

Editor’s Note:

For this article, New Labor Forum’s Working-Class Voices columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed three women who are members of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (“Alianza de Campesinas”), the first national women’s farmworker organization in the United States created by current and former women farmworkers, along with women who hail from farmworker families. Dolores Bustamante is both a farmworker and a board member of the organization, Elvira Carvajal is co-founder and board president, and Mily Treviño-Saucedo is executive director and co-founder and also served as a translator.

Dolores Bustamante: I’m from Morelos, Mexico. My mother worked in agriculture in Mexico ever since I was born. I never liked working in the fields. I always told my mom I would never work in the fields.

Elvira Carvajal: I’m from the state of Michoacán in Mexico. My parents worked as farmworkers in Mexico ever since I was a child. I did not work the fields there, but I would take food to them while they were working. Or I would do other kinds of agricultural work, like cutting the corn from the husk.

Dolores: I immigrated to the U.S. to the state of New Jersey. I ended up working in factories and doing janitorial work. During that time I brought my daughter, who was three years old, to the U.S. I had to work two jobs because I needed to send money to my other children in Mexico, and I had to pay rent to sustain myself and my daughter as well as paying for childcare. I found myself not seeing my daughter at all. Someone told me that there was a lot of work in Florida, and every- thing was very good. Even though I didn’t know anyone, I thought it would be good for me, so I went. I arrived in a small town, and the only work I could find was agriculture. I started picking zucchini and harvesting citrus, like oranges.

Elvira: My father wanted to come to the U.S., and I came with him to California when I was 19 years old. I tried working in a hotel in Palm Springs, and at the end of the eighties I moved to Florida. I worked picking lemons. I also picked okra, then harvesting wheat. I also worked in the nurseries.

Dolores: For the first several weeks when I would arrive home I was too sore to sit down. I had not done this kind of work before so my body ached all over. The only advantage I saw in this job was that I had a little more time with my daughter. The work was very hard, especially picking the oranges. I was a single mom, and was working with a lot of men. I was perceiving that the men thought that I was trying to be promiscuous, although I was not. I was being harassed at work by my coworkers. I endured that for a long time, and finally decided to sort of protect myself by being with a man who was not from the fields. It turns out that this person was very violent, and I suffered domestic violence. When my work would end, we had to migrate to other states, for example to South Carolina to harvest water- melons, or to Georgia to do other kinds of work in the fields. Every time we were travelling or living together there was a lot of violence. I had to choose between living with this man or leaving him and enduring the harassment by men at work. Being a single woman made me a target.

I had to choose between living with this [violent] man or leaving him and enduring the harassment by men at work. Being a single woman made me a target.

It was also hard for my daughter, as she had to change schools every time we would migrate from one state to another. In 2009 I went to New York to pick apples, I liked this work better. I really liked the climate, but I needed to go back to Florida. I went back for three years. When I returned to New York in 2012 there was a group called Divine Women that started inviting me to participate. I liked that group, and also got involved with the Workers’ Center of Central New York, and the Worker Justice Center of New York. I liked what I learned there. I started learning about my rights, and about men trying to harass me. This allowed me and other women workers to talk to the owners of the ranch to inform them about the problem of sexual harassment, the importance of workers knowing their rights, and the responsibility the owner has for the worker. The company contracts guest workers, and the majority of them are men. They need to understand what harassment is, and there is a lack of information. Sometimes when workers are told not to harass women in the workplace they will say “after work I can tell you whatever I want because I am not going to be working.” It’s a lack of consciousness, a lack of understanding that this is not right.

The company contracts guest workers, and the majority of them are men. They need to understand what harassment is . . .

Men in our community tend to think harassment is a compliment to women. Behaving like that was a privilege they’d always had. Coming to the U.S. it’s a very different thing because of the law now, and they don’t understand that. It’s not just the workplace, it’s everywhere. But this is something I learned through the meetings I’ve been going to, and these groups are a part of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas.

Elvira: I didn’t know my rights. I saw we didn’t get any water. Each worker would have to take their own thermos or gallon of water from home to the fields. We were not allowed to use the restroom. And if we wanted to ask for permission to go to the doctor because we had an appointment, the company would say if we missed a day we’d be fired.

For a while I was lemon picking, and that was really hard. Your work is timed, and the lemon trees have a lot of large thorns. Your arms and hands are scratched throughout the day. When you get home you have scratches all over your arms. Sometimes they become scars. At the nursery you start at 7 a.m. My work was in production. We planted the orchards on a daily basis. I don’t recall the exact amount of little plants we planted, but there were thousands of them a day. While you’re planting the beds are sprayed with chemicals. The workers are directly exposed, and inhale the chemicals. In the first nursery we didn’t have water, and we had to bring our own. There were restrooms, but they weren’t kept clean. In the other nursery there was some rest, and they provided water. You could use the restroom, but not often, and I was pregnant. It would call attention to me to use it with more frequency. In the nurseries 80 percent are women, and in the fields it’s fifty-fifty. We’re paid on a piece rate system, and I was paid thirty to forty cents a bucket.

In 2002 I decided to leave nursery work. I went to work as a volunteer for the Farmworker Association of Florida, which is another member organization. For a year and half I went back to school to study English as a second language, and I did this while I was volunteering at the association. I got my high school diploma.

The first thing that I learned when I went to volunteer was the impact of pesticides. I also learned about my rights and that I could exercise those rights in the workplace. For example, I found out that I could file a report and complain if I was not given permission to go to the restroom or if I was not getting any break. I also learned how bad it was for many of the women. Some could complain and others could not because they were undocumented and they were afraid of losing their job.

After a while as a volunteer at this association they offered me a job. I felt more responsible, and I wanted the workers to know about their rights, particularly because of the pesticide poisoning in the fields or the nursery where I worked. I had a miscarriage when I was six-and-a-half to seven-months pregnant. I didn’t understand that I ended up losing my baby due to the chemicals they were using in the nursery. This is why training is important to help women speak up. They can also represent others.

. . . I ended up losing my baby due to the chemicals they were using in the nursery.

Mily Treviño-Saucedo: Farmworkers are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

Elvira: We are not given an hourly wage, sick days, or health benefits. None of that. In coping with the cost of childcare we had some assistance in Florida through the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. They need that help because they only earn about $190 per week.

For housing, there are labor camps for farm- workers, but you must have legal status to live there. The federal government provides funding for them. Four years ago anybody could go and live in those camps, but right now they can’t. There are families that rent a place together in order to be able to afford the rent of $1500 or more. Maybe sixteen people live in a place to be able to pay rent. We travel thirty minutes to an hour to get to the fields. Most people have to get a ride, and there are places where there are company buses. There are times when the bus drivers are the ones who decide if you’re going to have a job or not that day.

. . . [T]here are labor camps for farmworkers, but you must have legal status to live there.

Mily: If you’re getting along with the bus driver, he’s either going to take you or not. There’s some harassment in this situation too.

Elvira: In the fields, the management structure is the owner, the supervisor, and the crew leader. When there’s an accident, the first one to be informed is the crew leader. Most of the time everything ends with them. Two days ago, I learned of a women worker who had a recent shoulder injury. The crew leader didn’t act, so the worker told the crew leader that if she wouldn’t tell the owner, she would go herself, and that was the only way this was done. The crew leaders do not want to jeopardize their own jobs.

Mily: That injured woman got guidance from Elvira, and now she’s getting physical therapy. But the majority of the workers don’t know their rights: that they can go over their crew leader or supervisor directly to the owner.

Dolores: Where I live (Upstate New York) there’s more people buying organic because they know there’s no pesticide use. I think this is important. But the public needs to know there are many abuses in the fields, ranches, and farms. There are workers who don’t rest any of the seven days, and work many hours a day, especially in the dairy ranches. The conditions for workers are very poor.

Elvira: Workers on organic farms don’t have access to the food they produce. Organic food is a luxury and only some people can afford it. I feel that many people buying organic are into their health, and not necessarily understanding the deplorable conditions of the workers. Some local organic producers might be doing better in terms of working conditions, but not all of them.

Dolores: I’m in a much more fortunate work- place because the workers are organized. We have four meetings a year with the owner, the supervisor, and workers. If anything hap- pens, the owner says we can go to the super- visor with him. It’s a very different dynamic. There’s very few companies like this. One of the senators from my state visited this farm, and the owner is trying his best to do a good job with workers. He says he’s also available for any kind of interview about the work relationship that he has with his workers and the conditions. He provides paid holidays and one week of paid vacation for his workers.

The campaign to eradicate sexual harassment for women farmworkers is a big focus of our work, so are raising wages, getting sick pay, and vacation pay.

Elvira: It is very important to be part of this national alliance. The more organizations that are united, the more possibility to create change. The campaign to eradicate sexual harassment for women farmworkers is a big focus of our work, so are raising wages, get- ting sick pay, and vacation pay. I would also like to see pregnant women workers have more options. Their pregnancy is a risk to their job and their job is a risk to their pregnancy. We need to address discrimination, and we need maternity leave. Most companies allow pregnant women workers to continue working; they work until their due date.

Mily: In our organizing work we use skits and art. We concentrate on the examples that are given by the women themselves which opens up a dialogue. Women don’t have to talk about their experiences until they have the trust that they are going to be believed and helped. People start talking; they under- stand they are not alone and there’s help for them. It’s a cultural tradition in our communities. Our ancestors had vignettes and role- playing that were presented or performed in the streets, in our villages.

In our organizing work we use skits and art.

In our organizing in California we felt that performing vignettes would help bring visibility. In the late eighties we had skits about labor issues and pesticides. In the nineties we had our first training about domestic violence. We prepared the women on the dynamics of domestic violence without using that term. We called it “violence against women in the home” or “family violence.” We used these skits to teach: what is the cycle of violence, why women stay in these situations, and what services exist. In between the vignettes we’d have a facilitator that is trained, one of the women farmworker members. She’s not just trained on the subject, but on women’s issues. We talked about the myths, taboos, our history, and how we have internalized a lot of traditions that have hurt us. We talked about it in the way the women’s movement did, despite not being involved with the women’s movement directly. Some of the women we were organizing weren’t that fond of feminism.

You know about Tupperware parties? For the women, that’s another way to try and sustain themselves because agricultural work is seasonal. They wanted to make sure they have some resources to sustain their family, so they learned how to be salespeople. These Tupperware parties have now become more formal and we’ve started calling them educational meetings. We have two parts: a presentation and a performance. We invite representatives from different worker centers, a person from our worker center, and a woman worker to co-facilitate. We’ve found there’s more trust when our members are the ones that are facilitating because they know us.

We also have The Bandana Project started by Monica Ramirez, a co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, who is now working with the Domestic Workers Alliance. People design the bandanas with messages about sexual harassment or words of encouragement. We organize this around the months of October and April, sexual harassment and violence against women awareness months. We have a dialogue with the community. Women have an exhibit of the bandanas, people start asking questions, and we talk about it. We’ve also used children’s aprons and satchels to discuss pesticide use. We have contests for how many bandanas you design, how many interviews and exhibits you had in your region. Did you talk to your local representative or your congress- person? Frequently they get certificates from their representatives, like city council members or board of supervisors from the school board, and it’s wonderful. They are doing all this art, they invite them to come, and to be part of the contest. Some have completed between 17 to 20 exhibits, not only because they’re competing, but because they are building awareness about issues they are not used to talking about.

People design . . . bandanas with messages about sexual harassment or words of encouragement . . .Women have an exhibit of the bandanas . . .

Right now the government is giving more funding for prevention of violence against women. I attended an advocacy day in Sacramento, and in the state of California there’s going to be funding for prevention. They are finding out that prevention of violence against women should include sexual harassment in the workplace, and this is something that our organization has been trying to do all along.

Our movement started thirty years ago when we began talking about not only supporting women, and assisting them when they are going through abuse, but also preventing it. We’re saying there should be more funding for prevention, and more pressure on companies to be training workers, supervisors, and people in authority. Companies can be sued if they don’t do this. They know it’s going to hurt their pocket, so they try to pre- vent it. Prevention work takes time. It has taken us ten to fifteen years to really mobilize a community for people to really under- stand. You have to unlearn what you have learned, and then learn new ways. And we have done that. It’s not an easy task.

Note: The Bandana Project is under Justice For Migrant Women’s leadership. 

Author Biographies

Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women organizing in the workplace.

Dolores Bustamante, Board member of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. She has been an active member and volunteer in several organizations such as Workers Center of Central New York, Mujeres Divinas, Alianza Nacional de Campesinas among others.

Elvira Carvajal, Co-founder and President of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Inc. She co- founded a women’s group “Proyecto Justicia Reproductiva” (Reproductive Justice Project), within the FWAF to talk about gender issues and teach each other art to then fundraise for their activism. She received the “Community Building Leadership Award, 2018.

Mily Treviño-Saucedo, Executive Director and Co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Inc. In 2016, the World Women Summit Foundation (WWSF) recognized her as one of nine laureates given the Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life. She earned a Bachelors’ Degree in Chicano Studies with a Minor in Women Studies, at Cal State Fullerton and a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences: Rural Development and Capacity Building, Women’s Leadership and Oral History from Antioch University. Mily currently works as the head of programs for Lideres Campesinas and as a consultant.