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Posted on May 13, 2017

Column: Complaint raises questions about harassment

By Sandy Zavala

Discrimination. It exists and is appalling in all its forms. A disdainful look, or “sour lemon face,” aimed toward others who are perceived to be different, attempting to invalidate a person’s value based on skin color or national origin, are barely veiled demonstrations of xenophobia and baseless superiority complexes. The other side of the intolerance spectrum hides something more insidious. Like a cancer that devours healthy cells, acts of violence, even sexual abuse, are onslaughts of profound disregard and utter disdain toward vulnerable populations.
In patriarchal societies, women throughout history have been treated as the “weaker sex.” Their worth inextricably tied to child-bearing and child-rearing, brood-mares that were considered chattel, existing solely to please their husbands and serve the needs of their children. Even now, in the 21st century, disgraceful remnants of such archaic thinking linger. After learning of the recent allegations that one of our longstanding local businesses was being investigated for sexual harassment, I was in disbelief. How could something this repugnant potentially exist in our close-knit, family-oriented town?
A complaint filed by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson states that a Quincy agricultural company allowed the male supervisor of its onion packing shed to sexually harass its female employees. Female workers claim they were “groped” by their foreman who “attempted to require (them) to have sex to secure continued employment” and were at the mercy of “overt sexual advances and gestures.”
According to Bernice Young with the Center of Investigative Reporting, in conjunction with University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of sexual harassment claims are filed each year across our country against male foremen, farm owners and others who are in positions of power over female agricultural workers. Thousands of pages of harassment claims rarely resulted in prosecution unless a federal court could determine that a work environment was “sexually hostile” as a result of the reported sexual advances. Only 50 percent of complaints reach trial, with the remainder either settled out of court or thrown out due to a lack of evidence. As atrocities are committed secretly, in desolate farm areas, isolated storage spaces, or unoccupied cold storage facilities, it is always the victim’s word against the accused. Even in cases where multiple victims came forward, a lack of witnesses or unaware work environment, rendered most prosecutions difficult.
Some growers continue to believe that the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees workplace discrimination, is hostile and overly litigious. Brendan V. Monahan, attorney for Yakima Valley Evans Fruit in a sexual harassment claim put forth by 14 female employees, stated, “The EEOC has imagined this adversarial relationship between farmers and laborers that I don’t think really exists, and they have chosen to champion labor in an imagined fight against farmers. It should be a matter of conciliation and compliance rather than confrontation and coerced enforcement.” Although some female claimants may be motivated by financial gain, the cases that reach trial do have sufficient evidence to proceed. After all, why would federal prosecutors, or any attorney for that matter, waste billable hours and other resources on cases that don’t have merit and won’t yield large settlements to cover legal fees?
The fact that Mr. Monahan felt that the farming community was unfairly targeted in discrimination cases speaks volumes about the hurdles that women, particularly migrant farm workers, still face. If these women were viewed as valuable human beings and employees, they would enjoy the same credibility and protection as their male coworkers. Recognizing these migrant women as essential to the agricultural livelihood of a successful growing operation is the first step. Implementing a sexual harassment policy that clearly outlines appropriate behavior should follow. Subsequent periodic training and monitoring of staff will ensure that growers adhere to the law while promoting a safe and productive work environment.
The grotesque institutionalized practice of “turning a blind eye” against sexual discrimination in the workplace cannot continue. Not if we aspire to be the very best we can be.

Sandy Zavala is a former counselor, health care researcher and social worker who lives in Quincy with her family.

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