Tuesday, November 4, 2014

California passes new law aimed to reduce sexual harassment of field workers

Last year a number of media outlets featured stories about the sexual harassment of field workers. NPR did two stories found here and here. These two stories were covered on the blog here. Frontline also covered this same story here. The stories are similar and tragic. The women were all sexually assaulted, but out of fear of reprisals did not immediately report the crimes. After her assault, one woman continued to work the fields until she could not take it anymore. She reported the incident and was fired immediately. She was threatened with calls to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) if she pursued legal action against her attacker. This year the California Legislature passed a law aimed at protecting field workers from sexual harassment by going after the labor contractors who employ them.

On September 28, 2014, California Governor Edmund Brown, Jr. signed into law Senate Bill (hereafter, “S.B.”) 1087. S.B. 1087 was introduced by Senator Monning (D-Carmel) and goes into effect on January 1, 2015. The Bill will punish labor contractors who hire workers with a history of sexual harassment by revoking or suspending their licenses. Further, the bill mandates sexual harassment training for both supervisors and employees.

Senator Monning was inspired to write the bill after hearing the reports by Univision, UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, Frontline, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. The reports exposed how rampant the problem of sexual harassment was and how little was being done about it. Senator Monning said this bill “is the first step to help protect these workers from unwanted sexual advances and sexual violence.”

As the NPR and Frontline pieces point out, the victims are in an extremely vulnerable position. They work in isolated locations where the harassment can go unnoticed. They are in desperate need of their jobs. The perpetrators of the harassment are often supervisors who control whether these women will keep their jobs. The women fear they will lose their jobs if they report any incidents. These fears are grounded in reality. The women from the NPR and Frontline stories did lose their jobs when they reported the incidents. All it takes is one phone call and their entire livelihood could be taken away. This leads to a feeling of helplessness for the women and invincibility for the perpetrators and the supervisors who look past it.

While S.B. 1087 was making its way through the legislature, Michael Marsh from California Rural Legal Assistance commented that:

a lot of the harassers are serial harassers. They go from one place of employment to the next place of employment and no one ever checks on their credentials or checks their background.

This new law will prevent labor contractors from hiring anyone who has been found by a court or administrative agency to have committed sexual harassment upon another employee. 

S.B. 1087 passed through the California Legislature with some resistance. Six Senators – all Republican – voted no. Twenty-three Assemblymembers voted no, again all Republican. I am not surprised by the ideological split in the votes, but I am surprised by the amount of opposition. And most surprising of all was the number of female no votes:  Among the ‘No’ votes were seven female Assemblymembers and one female senator.


Charlie said...

Great post! It's interesting to see that there were female assemblymembers and senators who opposed this bill. But there are probably a list of valid reasons that they opposed it. For example, they could have seen it as being too lenient on people with histories of sexual harassment. They could have also argued, and I would agree, that victims of sexual harassment at the workplace need more protection in some areas, such as anti-retaliatory conduct by supervisors and coworkers (as the NPR and Frontline mentions, but I don't think the bill addresses). I also wonder if there are any current anti-workplace sexual harassment statutes. If so, wouldn't these laws apply to fieldworkers? Or conversely, maybe S.B. 1087 should apply to all workplaces, whether on the farm or in the office.

Desi Fairly said...

Hats off to the governor; September 28, 2014 was a productive day for Jerry Brown! In addition to SB 1087, he also singed AB 1897 in an effort to provide more legal rights to farmworkers. AB 1897 makes farmers civilly responsible for wage theft committed by contractors that hire farmworkers on the farmer’s behalf. The legislation will really benefit illegal farmworker immigrants and guest worker immigrants on the H2A visa. Before AB 1897, farmers would hire (and thereby shift liability to) contractors to recruit immigrants for the harvesting season. Then, when the contractors committed wage theft against the immigrants, the farmers would claim that they were not liable for the abuse. Both SB 1087 and AB 1897 recognize that workers in the fields are often the subjects of exploitation and deserve extra protection.