Nely Rodríguez stands in front of 43 farmworkers and supervisors who sit side by side at picnic tables wearing various protective workwear — hats, ski masks, bandanas, socks as sleeves.

Rodríguez, a member and worker-leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), points to a drawing of a female farmworker bent over picking tomatoes while a male supervisor stands over her saying, “¡Mamacita, qué rico te vez!” or “Hot momma, you look so sexy!”

“What should you do if this happens to one of your compañeras?” she asks, speaking with warmth and dignified confidence. A few workers laugh, others yell in collective response, “Report it!”

It’s June 2019, and Rodríguez, 53, is in the Sea Islands of South Carolina at Lipman Family Farms, America’s largest field tomato grower and one of the country’s largest agricultural employers. Here, orderly rows of tomato plants coexist next to old-growth jungle with oaks and Spanish moss. Five hundred men and women are harvesting crops across Lipman’s eight farms in this St. Helena Island site — one of more than 30 Lipman locations in the U.S. 

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Nely Rodríguez, a member and worker-leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Credit: Vera Chang

Back in 2011, Lipman was one of the first growers to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), a worker-led human-rights initiative run by CIW. The FFP is now on 27 farms, but, as an early signer, Lipman was instrumental in getting other industrial tomato producers to participate in the program in order to gain the same access to participating buyers, which today include 14 U.S. corporate retailers — grocery stores, fast food restaurants and institutional food providers including Whole Foods, Chipotle and Compass North America. By joining the FFP, growers agree to a code of conduct that promises that fields will be free of sexual harassment and assault, among other fundamental human rights.

After the #MeToo movement erupted, web traffic for sexual harassment-related searches more than doubled between 2017 and 2018. But in agriculture, forestry and fishing there were fewer reports than before. “We don’t see the floodgates from the people who are most affected,” said Anna Park, the L.A. District Regional Attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “I’m not sure that #MeToo has trickled down to low-wage earners.”

And yet, Rodríguez and others working with the Fair Food Program have shown that the opposite is possible: When farmworkers have the opportunity to prevent — not just remedy — sexual violence, they seize it. 

A dark history of harassment

The case of Diego Muriel, a supervisor at a farm labor trailer camp, shows how agriculture’s weak regulatory environment has meant that sexual abuse is also often present alongside other forms of violence — it’s just harder to see. 

The Fair Food Program uncovered scores of testimonies by workers who hadn’t pursued charges against Muriel claiming that he would “rub against” female workers as he walked the fields. According to the report, he would “stare at women” for long periods of time, gift them extra piece-rate tickets (payment per amount harvested) “so they would let him touch them,” and let himself into their bedrooms while they slept. As the report describes, he took a 16-year-old to a motel for three days only to release her when the girl’s father “put a gun to his head.” And according to the report, Muriel then paid this statutory rape victim, who became pregnant, to disappear. A male worker said that Muriel told him, “All the women that work in the field, married or single, I have taken advantage of them.” Another male farmworker confided, “Most women are afraid of losing their jobs and won’t speak up.”

Back at Lipman Family Farms, Rodríguez explained that the program works because workers are empowered to monitor their own rights. This shifts the culture away from secrecy. The first step in doing so: education. And FFP education sessions are nothing like boilerplate anti-sexual harassment tutorials.

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Workers are empowered to monitor their own rights, shifting the culture away from secrecy. Credit: Vera Chang

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers runs live, interactive, peer-to-peer trainings that use theater, artwork and real situations to teach workers about their rights. Since the FFP started, CIW has conducted 775 in-person sessions that have educated more than 60,000 workers across seven East Coast states. 

As the culture of reporting takes off, it’s possible that more people have become comfortable speaking up.

For example, in 2018, nearly 70 percent of sexual harassment complaints in the program were from Haitian workers. Although they represented less than 20 percent of fieldworkers, the Haitians were new to the program and so only recently educated about their rights. The way Rodríguez sees it, other workers’ successful reporting of problems helped Haitian workers come forward.

The FFP has begun to create a culture of reporting problems through vigilantly protecting workers from retaliation through legally-binding agreements with real economic consequences for growers. The real threat of withholding corporate sales acts as the hammer in enforcement of the FFP’s Code.

“We’re there to make sure that workers have the knowledge to end what was an ugly situation for many years for many people,” Rodríguez said. “It’s no longer easy to stay quiet or watch what’s happening to a woman and not do anything.”

Rigorous audits

The day after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers finished its education sessions, the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) — the program’s third-party monitoring body — hit the ground with audits.

Like detectives, FFSC auditors piece together fact-rich tapestries of narrative and observation to get what they call “a high-resolution snapshot” of workers’ experiences and the power structures in the field. FFSC interviews all levels of supervisors and at least half the workforce at any given location, well above industry practice. At Lipman on St. Helena that day, this meant interviewing at least 372 workers. The crews moved from row to row in a heat index of 103 degrees, filling 32-pound buckets with tomatoes, then hoisting them onto their shoulders and heaving them atop a flatbed truck. Occasionally, a worker would stop to drink water from a white cone-shaped cup.

I followed FFSC auditor Tomas Laster down a tomato furrow. He spoke with a farmworker wearing latex gloves and a white t-shirt smeared with tomato residue. Laster, the worker and I moved together through the rows, alternating between hunching and crouching, as the worker reached for fruit low to the ground. Being at the same height helps mitigate power disparities, Laster told me.

“Have you felt comfortable working here?” Laster asked. “Has the supervisor ever spoken to you in a disrespectful manner?” “Everything’s fine,” the fieldworker responded.

“Any bromas pesadas [jokes in bad taste]?” “Is this a workplace you’d want your mom or sister working in?” he asked, digging below the surface.

Asking directly about sexual harassment can be too outright a question for many to answer candidly, and interpretations of harassment can be subjective. It’s often helpful to ask about something that’s happened to someone else or something workers saw, rather than what they experienced personally, FFSC Associate Director Derek Brinks explained.

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The Fair Food Standards Council prepares for an audit. Credit: Vera Chang

“It’s the first real audit organization that I’ve ever seen,” Lipman’s Chief Farming Officer, Toby Purse, said. “You can’t fake your way through it.” FFSC’s audit reports are a whopping 60 pages. And the audit process requires many people working many hours to run.

“I prefer talking after coffee, but call anytime,” Auditor Jenna Hostetler told a picker as they wrapped up an interview. In June, she handed the worker a card with the FFP’s 24/7, toll-free hotline number that’s answered by the same auditors who are in the fields. Having 24/7 accessibility to workers is crucial in an industry where harvests start before sunrise and end late in the evening.

What sets the investigations apart

FFSC is similar to the judicial system in many ways. Investigations can require the testimony of witnesses, the cross-examination of accused perpetrators and/or interviews with an entire crew about an incident. But there are key distinctions that make the FFP work better with a migrant agricultural population.

Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice and FFSC’s executive director, explained that FFP workers don’t have to travel to an office or sign an affidavit. There aren’t formal adversarial proceedings, and the process of discovery is prompt. If there are sufficient witnesses, the complaint can be investigated by the company and FFSC without disclosing victims’ or witnesses’ names.

Victims of sexual harassment with physical contact don’t have to prove that they were touched in an inappropriate place or that the perpetrator intended sexual gratification, as they would need to demonstrate in a legal case. The informality of FFSC’s communication lends itself to transparency, adds Espinoza. When necessary, FFSC has stayed in contact with complainants who have left the state. This doesn’t happen in the legal system.

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Executive Director Laura Safer Espinoza in the Fair Food Standards Council office. Credit: Vera Chang

Espinoza says FFSC typically reaches a resolution about complaints within two weeks. Cases that move through the legal system, on the other hand, can take years or even decades, which risks losing contact with aggrieved workers who may never be able to collect judgment. FFSC always provides complainants with access to the civil or criminal justice systems, should they choose to pursue those. However, many workers — vindicated by FFSC’s prompt, confidential investigations and consequences for abusers — choose not to.

“Workers have seen enough supervisors’ heads roll for things that would never have even raised an eyebrow before — a slap on the butt, an arm on the shoulder. If a worker complained about that before, first of all, they’d be fired. Second, others would laugh. It’s not a laughing matter anymore. Those days are over,” said Espinoza.

The Fair Food program’s near-elimination of sexual harassment

Since the Fair Food Program started in 2011, auditors say cases of sexual assault have been virtually eliminated on participating farms.

“This is probably, in my experience, the most roundly complete anti-gender-based violence effort,” said Aaron Polkey, staff attorney with Futures without Violence, a nonprofit that was instrumental in the creation of the anti-sexual harassment training video for the agricultural industry. It “cuts off the oxygen that fuels sexual violence, in an environment where it would otherwise run hidden and rampant.”

The 2016 EEOC Select Taskforce on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace called the FFP a “radically different accountability mechanism.” Ambassador Luis C. deBaca said that the FFP’s concept of workers controlling their own program for remedy and monitoring their own rights is basic but unusual — revolutionary, even — because it’s rarely, if ever, done.

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“This is probably, in my experience, the most roundly complete anti-gender-based violence effort,” says Aaron Polkey, staff attorney with Futures without Violence. Credit: Vera Chang

Growers who have signed onto the Fair Food Program agree to reflect on their work in ways that can be challenging at times. 

“I make no bones about it. I’d prefer to have nobody in between me and my customer’s relationship,” he said, when I asked him about what it’s been like to work with the FFP.

Compliance with the FFP has been a lot of work for Lipman. All the farm’s systems are now radically different from the agriculture industry norm. “This company would not look the way it does today if we weren’t partners with the FFP,” Purse said matter-of-factly. He characterized the changes the program catalyzed as a “paradigm shift,” but said that they’d been worthwhile. For example, Lipman has high retention rates for the industry, which helps mitigate risk. Everyone I spoke to also said they would return to Lipman if given the opportunity.

I’d actually first heard about Lipman from Gloria Olivo, a Florida tomato picker. “Before I joined the company, I’d always moved from one farm to the next. There wasn’t much respect,” she told me. “People have rights here.” Olivo, a sexual abuse survivor, has been at Lipman for the past six years now, an extraordinarily long tenure in migrant labor.

Lipman is such a desirable place to work that there have been three fake Facebook pages by illegal recruiters pretending to represent Lipman, plagiarizing their name and logo, according to several Lipman employees. (The pages were shut down.)

Sexual Harassment Remains an Evergreen Problem

Mirroring the wider #MeToo movement, the problem of sexual harassment on farms will never go away completely. But for perhaps the first time in agricultural labor, there’s now a system with ample safeguards. Under the FFP, workers can articulate problems that were formerly hidden, and sanctions proportionate to perpetrators’ inappropriate conduct are enforced.

A telling coda to Diego Muriel’s predations illustrates the shift that the FFP has wrought. For years, Muriel made comments to a mother and daughter about their bodies — their waists, legs and bottoms — while they worked and traveled with him, according to an FFSC report. When the family told the company about the farm labor contractor’s behavior, Muriel retaliated, decreasing the father’s bus driving hours. One night in 2013, the family called the FFP’s 800 number, and Muriel, who had violently harassed men and women for years, was terminated. FFSC’s two-week investigation of this case involved many complainants and witnesses. It resulted in corrective action plans for the farm, including an audited retraining of all the supervisors who had worked under Muriel.

Refugio “Cuco” Flores, a farm labor contractor who works at Lipman, agrees with Purse that sexual harassment may never leave the fields for good.

“Things are bound to happen that [are] not good. Either an accident, a fight, disrespect, or harassment,” he said, describing risks faced by isolated people on farm fields. And yet, Flores is also experiencing a changing culture in those fields.

“We didn’t notice [how common sexual harassment was], like cavemen didn’t notice that killing somebody with a rock was bad.”

Flores, 43, began working as a contractor when he was 16, and now runs eBerry, one of the largest farm labor contract companies. A former wide receiver, he sees his work as akin to managing a football team. During peak season, though, Flores has a crew nine times that size — 450 workers. eBerry supervisors and workers start harvests in Florida, move north to South Carolina and Virginia, and finally travel by school bus to New Jersey.

There used to be a lot of casual touching in farm work, Flores told me. “Hi, mis amigos,” Flores said while he air-gestured patting with his hands, the way he’d greet fieldworkers daily. He says he’ll never do that to anyone again. Flores used to save the first few rows of the bus for female workers, but he doesn’t do that anymore either. Flores and I spoke in a private, tree-shaded area of Lipman’s parking lot. He’d never speak with a female employee alone like that anymore, either.

I asked what changed for him. “The Fair Food Program,” Flores replied. “We got educated, and it made sense.”

*The names of some people have been changed in the interest of privacy.

This story was supported with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.