PBS Frontline aired a documentary about sexual assault among farm workers. Much of the information for the documentary was provided by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), a progressive investigative reporting agency with offices in Berkley, Calif. The report and documentary can be found at bit.ly/14V7Ptq.
PBS planned the documentary to coincide with a multimillion dollar investigation and lawsuit brought by the EEOC on behalf of several farm workers against a family farm in Yakima. EEOC’s strategy is to pursue high profile cases in an effort to gain publicity about a problem it perceives. There are rarely any trials because most employers quickly agree to settle when faced with the enormous resources and coercive pressure brought by the federal government and other publicly funded lawyers.
But this employer chose to fight. And after more than two years, in early April, a jury - not a farmer or employer among them - returned a verdict in favor of the farmer on all counts. But the show must go on. So instead of airing a documentary that recorded the complexity of sexual assault and the steps that farmers are taking, PBS retreated into the stereotype of “big agribusiness” versus farm worker. When a multigenerational family farm grows to remain competitive, it apparently earns the label of agribusiness.
In this case, the EEOC also filed a retaliation claim against the employer which was thrown out by the judge. Now, instead of accepting the verdict and using precious resources to work with farmers and other employers on the issue, the EEOC has vowed to appeal the rulings in the hopes of gaining another million dollar trial. The clear message to employers: even if you did nothing wrong, it is futile to stand up to the federal government.
In America, a cottage industry has been created around the notion that farmers abuse workers. This industry is fueled by government grants and other public funding for groups who perpetuate this notion, but nothing could be further from the truth. Farmers and farm workers enjoy excellent working relations, and PBS was unable to get workers to say anything bad about this family farm in Yakima because it has a well-earned reputation as a great employer. In watching the documentary, it appears that this employer had one rogue employee who was not acting in line with the company’s high standards.
The PBS documentary was biased. The commentator stated that few employers would speak to PBS about sexual assault. If that were true it would not be surprising, but it is not true. The truth is that WAFLA provided unfettered access to every reporter who called, and spoke with reporters on over a dozen occasions. PBS never called, but its partner CIR did. And when they did, WAFLA arranged interviews with employers and tours of worker housing where reporters were free to speak with many workers. The only request that was denied – at the urging of the EEOC – was a CIR request to videotape a speech to farmers by the head EEOC litigator. Get your story straight, PBS.
Glaring factual inaccuracy
The fact is that sexual assault is a serious issue for all employers, and Washington farmers are stepping up to create a culture of compliance among the work force. Had PBS actually spoken with farmers or WAFLA, they would have found employers that are facing the issue head on. All PBS had to do was go to the WAFLA website (http://wafla.org/eeoccompliance) to access a full list of services for farmers, including bilingual on-site training, investigation and mediation services, all specifically geared to sexual harassment issues. But it would make a boring documentary to report that farmers are dealing with an issue that plagues agriculture, construction, the military, high tech, and many other industries in the U.S. today.
The story by the Center for Investigative Report was more accurate. The CIR story admits that there is no evidence to support the proposition that sexual assault or harassment is more prominent in agriculture than it is in any other sector of the economy.
The CIR also chose largely not to report on the steps that farmers are taking. As one example, WAFLA invited the head EEOC litigator in this region, William Tamayo, to speak to 200 growers at its annual labor conference in February 2013. WAFLA paid all of Mr. Tamayo’s travel expenses for the trip, and then scheduled a series of bilingual training seminars throughout the state where EEOC and WAFLA trainers provided in depth training to agriculture employers. We greatly appreciate EEOC support and commitment of resources for this effort. Another 160 people attended the in-depth training sessions, which in some cases were held while PBS or CIR reporters were down the street covering the trial. Had they attended the training, CIR or PBS could have witnessed firsthand the systems that agriculture employers are putting in place to ensure that management is aware of problems. There are challenges in this area for all employers, and we need EEOC to focus more on helping employers comply instead of pursuing high cost litigation that can bankrupt one small business without solving the problem.
The CIR report contained one glaring factual inaccuracy. The report states, “In rural areas, access to attorneys for low-income clients is limited, making it difficult for farmworkers to file civil cases on their own in state courts.” This untrue statement is routinely made by groups seeking more government funding and is blindly repeated without a fact check by reporters. The fact is that farm workers in Washington state - even those without documentation - have better access to free, high quality legal assistance than virtually any other group of low to moderate wage workers in the state. The combined budget for publicly funded civil legal aid in Washington exceeds $15 million per year. Here is one example: attorneys for farm workers regularly solicit clients at farm worker housing facilities. They politely knock on doors, give out pamphlets, and inquire as to whether workers have any legal issues. This is done up and down the west coast. In fact, one evening last week, these attorneys conducted this outreach at a rural housing facility managed by WAFLA. We are unaware of any other worker group who is afforded this level of access to legal services.
Instead of fighting with farmers, the Washington Farm Labor Association urges the EEOC and the other advocacy groups who represent farm workers to join with us in working to instill a culture of compliance among farmers and farm workers to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault.
More from Western Farm Press