Sexual Harassment Still ‘Normal’ in Low-Wage Jobs
Since sexual harassment is about power, not sex, it’s not surprising that low-wage women in lousy jobs get a lot of it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says the restaurant industry is the largest source of sexual harassment claims. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) finds harassment of women farmworkers to be pervasive.
In a national survey of 4,300 restaurant workers by the worker center Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, more than one in 10 workers reported that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual harassment. ROC says even this creepy figure is likely an undercount.
Focus groups and interviews ROC conducted nationwide found sexual harassment an “accepted… part of the culture.” One worker said, “It’s inevitable. If it’s not verbal assault, someone wants to rub up against you.”
ROC reviewed four years of EEOC sexual harassment settlements and verdicts in the restaurant industry and found that cases were filed primarily against well-known chains, including McDonald’s (the worst with 16 percent of the cases), KFC, Sonic, IHOP, Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel, Ruby Tuesday, and Denny’s.
Most often, workers were abused and harassed daily and faced some form of retaliation for complaining.
One farmworker described the norm in the fields similarly to that in restaurants: “You allow it or they fire you.” A 2010 study of farmworker women found 80 percent had experienced sexual harassment at work.
Farmworker women can be especially vulnerable when they are employed and paid by individual crewleaders, who thus have tight control over their livelihoods.
One was fired along with her husband and son, and lost their company housing, after she complained to the company’s human resources office of a crewleader’s uninvited visits to her trailer after her husband had left for work. The crewleader was responsible for, and often withheld, her pay.
The Fair Food Code of Conduct CIW negotiated with Florida tomato growers and fast food chains enables CIW to set up worker-to-worker trainings that address sexual harassment on company time. A Know Your Rights booklet and video include a sexual harassment scenario scripted and acted by CIW members.
The Code has enforcement provisions, too. Sexual harassment that involves physical contact will cause curtailment of tomato purchases from participating growers for at least three months, unless the harasser is fired and other corrective action is taken.
In a report on its Fair Food Program for 2011-13, CIW reports two cases of growers who responded to removal or the threat of removal by firing abusive crewleaders and conducting trainings.