Rooted in Violence: Abuse of Female Farmworkers in Mexico’s Agriculture Industry

By Josia Klein, University of Chicago Law School Class of 2020

The prevalence of workplace sexual harassment has come to public attention, brought to the global stage by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. However, certain locations and industries have remained insulated from public view. In an effort to shed light on one such industry, a team of students and faculty from the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago investigated gender-based violence in Mexican agriculture. Jornaleras, or female farmworkers, are one of the most vulnerable populations in Mexico: they are doubly imperiled, first as women and second as laborers in an industry rife with systemic abuses.

While some research has documented violence against women in agriculture in Mexico, comprehensive data and statistics do not exist. Several studies are currently in process, attempting to gain insight into the existence of such abuse. However, the relative inaccessibility of these work places and the reluctance of female farmworkers to report violations makes this information difficult to obtain. There are numerous reports and statistics on violence and discrimination in Mexico more broadly, which provide some insight into the realities these women confront. Existing information — investigative journalism pieces, academic research, or governmental reports — indicates widespread violence and almost complete impunity for severe violations. The Clinic team conducted in-country interviews with government officials, non-governmental organizations, service providers, academics, and labor organizers to supplement existing research and identify the key factors contributing to the heightened vulnerability of women in agriculture.

One prominent factor underlying the abuse of jornaleras is the normalization of violence against women (VAW) in Mexico, which is widely considered pandemic. A 2016 national survey found that almost two-thirds (63%) of Mexican women over the age of 15 had experienced some form of violence in their lives. This violence includes emotional violence, physical abuse, economic violence, and sexual violence, each of which occurs at high levels and prevents women from achieving equal opportunities or stability in the community. Alarmingly, these statistics likely underestimate the true level of VAW in Mexico, as a number of factors discourage reporting abuse.[1] There is a systemic under-enforcement of laws enacted to combat violence against women. For example, despite there being 467,014 reported cases of domestic violence from 2011 to 2015, the government pressed charges in only 1.7% of those cases. This under-enforcement leads to under-reporting of gender-based violence and abuse. The aforementioned national survey indicated that there were 29.6 million instances of physical or sexual violence against women that went entirely unreported in 2016. The tolerance for these practices has created stigma and barriers to both reporting and enforcement, compounding the widespread impunity for offenders that already predominates in the industry.

Eian Katz, a third-year law student and member of the team that traveled to Mexico to interview stakeholders, said “Women’s advocates repeatedly referred to a culture of normalized labor violence, in which sexual abuse is accepted as a condition of employment.” Though statistics are limited, women in the Mexican agriculture industry likely face violence at higher rates than women in Mexico overall because the industry reinforces the factors that enable VAW. The agricultural industry is a male-dominated space where gender discrimination permeates work assignments and payment. As such, women’s opportunities are limited. Katz emphasized that agricultural labor is broken down by gender, stating that “pervasive notions of female fragility are invoked to justify limiting women to low-paying positions.” One researcher, for example, shared that women are commonly employed as berry pickers because of their supposedly dainty fingers.[2]

A second prominent factor is the generally abusive environment within the agriculture industry. Such an environment limits remedies for labor rights violations, and by extension, gender-based violence in the fields. Farmworkers often face threats of wage theft from employers and drug cartels, with such exploitation occurring at high frequencies without any intervention from government agencies.[3] Workers do not receive vacation days or sick leave as provided by law, and they work in the fields regardless of the weather. Employers often fail to provide for workers’ basic human needs, including food, water, and shelter. Access to water is lacking, and food provisions are inadequate. Housing conditions can be just as bad: there are documented reports of structures made of black plastic bags where workers sleep on the ground and children play on piles of trash. Abuse is normalized and workers fear retribution, blacklisting, or worse if they speak up or complain.

The prevalence of labor abuses is partly due to the failure of government institutions to enforce existing legal protections. Much of what is provided for on paper fails to materialize in practice. Lack of resources, inaction by key government actors, and vague, complex accountability and delegation mechanisms stymie the government’s enforcement of its laws. A lack of funding leads to under-investigation of reported abuses, and underdeveloped training programs lead to poorly-trained officials misunderstanding labor laws and the rights of workers.

As a result of these overarching factors, female farmworkers labor within a context of exploitation and lack of regulation. In addition to facing vulnerabilities in the agricultural industry alongside their male counterparts, female farmworkers have an additional burden of gender-based abuse and discrimination. Women endure economic and sexual violence, including pay disparities, gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. The perpetrators of sexual violence on Mexican farms vary from managers to coworkers to middlemen. Behind closed doors, men report that their coworkers frequently insult women. Meanwhile, women report being frequently objectified[4] and even threatened with rape.

“While the government officials we encountered readily acknowledged the mistreatment of jornaleras as a serious problem, few were willing to take ownership,” said Katz. “Instead, officials pass the burden to another agency with shared jurisdiction over the matter.” The government’s failure to investigate and prosecute abuses has led to widespread distrust in public institutions, discouraging reporting of such crimes.

Inadequate government response is further complicated and compounded by limited corporate social responsibility and supervision over the labor conditions on the farms from which companies source their produce. Many foreign (including American) companies have basic supply chain standards: they assure consumers that they require compliance with these standards from their suppliers, but then fail to adequately monitor or enforce these standards. Department of Labor officials in Mexico recognize that corporate social responsibility programs from large agriculture companies are “lacking.”[5] This leaves vulnerable workers with little protection and gives farm owners no incentive to improve workplace conditions or abide by already under-enforced labor and criminal laws.

The state of labor violations and violence against women in Mexico was part of a recent campaign in the United States to compel an American corporation to take responsibility for abuses occurring within their supply chains abroad. With pressure from activists building, Wendy’s announced during a shareholders meeting in early June that they would be bringing over 90% of their tomato sourcing back to the United States and Canada. Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito stated that the company recognized the concerns of human rights and workers’ rights organizations regarding the “working conditions for tomato workers.” Esposito continued, “We appreciate that concern, we share it.” The decision to change sourcing of tomatoes indicates that these companies are not immune to scrutiny and public pressure. However, there is growing apprehension that the greenhouses to which Wendy’s is shifting production have “the very same situations of abuse,” but in enclosed spaces rather than open fields.

Ultimately, without transparent and consistent enforcement mechanisms intended to prevent and address abuses, abuses are likely to continue unabated. It is essential that the public be aware of the violence and discrimination that female farmworkers confront in the agricultural industry, a consciousness that requires an understanding of the greater context in which these abuses occur. The research conducted by the International Human Rights Clinic aims to provide that information and insight to the public by unearthing the roots of violence in the fields.

[1] Interview with Samantha Baéz Blancas, Casa Gaviota (March 21, 2018).

[2] Interview with Mayela Blanco, Red Nacional de Jornaleros (March 21, 2018).

[3] Interview with Maria Yuriria Alvarez, CNDH (March 21, 2018).

[4] Interview of University of Michoacán researchers (March 23, 2018) (finding that men and women both agreed catcalling is very frequent, although workers’ perceptions were evenly split with regards to whether or not this could be called sexual harassment).

[5] Interview with Official, Directorio del Igualdad de Derechos Laborales (March 21, 2018).