The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of several women farmworkers alleging that a Colorado potato warehouse violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by allowing managers to sexually harass female employees.

In a press release issued last week, the EEOC said managers at MountainKing Potatoes – which also does business as Smokin’ Spuds, Inc. and Farming Technology, Inc - subjected women farmworkers to “inappropriate sexual touching, comments, gestures and propositions.” Some workers were reassigned or fired after complaining about the sexual harassment. According to the EEOC, one employee was disciplined for arriving to work late to avoid her abuser. The company took no action to stop the harassment.

According to Law360, production supervisor Samuel Valdez personally “directed sexually inappropriate behavior toward women” at the Colorado warehouse location. “Valdez had a habit of licking his finger and putting it in the ears of at least two of the female plaintiffs,” reports the news site. “Valdez also allegedly sexually propositioned some of the women, touched female employees’ buttocks while they clocked in for work, forced [one of the plaintiffs] to sit on his lap in a dark office and made inappropriately sexual remarks.”

“Farm workers, whether in remote and underserved areas, or isolated in a warehouse, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace, and it is essential for their employers to stop the kind of conduct we charged in this civil action,” said Mary Jo O’Neill, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office, whose jurisdiction includes Colorado.

The EEOC stressed that farmworkers should feel empowered to report sexual harassment and discrimination to the agency, noting that the EEOC has Spanish-speaking investigators and will accept reports by mail.

According to the 2010 National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), which surveyed crop workers, about 72 percent of farmworkers in 2007-2009 reported that they were born outside of the United States, with 68 percent reporting they were born in Mexico. The proportion of undocumented workers has, on average, represented at least 50 percent of the crop worker labor force since 2001. At least 24 percent of this population is female, with 3 percent representing minors.

In 2012, Human Rights Watch released a 95-page report chronicling the incidence of sexual violence and harassment of immigrant farmworkers. The organization found that most farmworkers interviewed had either experienced or knew someone who had been the victim of rape, groping, exhibitionism, or some other form of sexual harassment or abuse.

Incorporating NAWS’ demographic data, the HRW determined that one of the most common barriers to reporting was “fear of deportation” and growing skepticism about increased cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Media Resources:EEOC 8/8/14; Law360 8/8/14; Human Rights Watch 5/16/12

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