Female Farm Workers Awarded $17 Million in Florida Abuse Case

September 15, 2015
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by Sara Obeidat Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

A federal jury has awarded $17.4 million to five migrant women who say they were raped and sexually harassed by three male supervisors at the Florida packing plant where they worked.

The jury award is among the largest on record in a case involving the sexual abuse of one of the most invisible members of the U.S. workforce — migrant workers in the agriculture industry. An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms, and although reports of abuse and sexual harassment in the industry span the nation, a 2013 FRONTLINE investigation found that such cases rarely result in prosecution or an award for victims.  

What makes these cases so challenging, say victims rights advocates, is that often time, victims will simply not report their crimes out of fear of losing their jobs, or in the case of undocumented workers, the perceived threat of deportation.

“It’s difficult because you typically end up having victims who are very afraid of the legal process,” said Robert Weisberg, an attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, the federal agency responsible for enforcing workplace discrimination laws. “There are language issues generally with witnesses who might otherwise be helpful or afraid to come forward, so you have a lot of dynamics which are at work here,” said Weisberg. “I think in this instance there was a group of incredibly courageous women who had the strength and the conviction to take it through.”

According to the complaint in the case, which was filed by the EEOC, two sons of the owner of Moreno Farms, and a third male supervisor, allegedly propositioned, groped and raped the five women at a packing facility operated by the company near Fort Myers, Fla. The complaint says all five women were threatened with termination if they opposed the three mens’ sexual advances. Each woman was eventually fired.

Under the terms of the jury verdict, which was announced last week, the women will receive around $2.4 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages.

But collecting the payment will be a challenge, said Weisberg, because Moreno Farms closed after the charges against it were filed. The company did not participate in the trial, leading the judge in the case to issue a default judgement in favor of the women. The three men at the center of the case were never arrested, and investigators say their whereabouts are unclear.

According to Weisberg, the EEOC has started the process of looking at the farms’ remaining assets in an attempt to find a way to compensate the victims.

The details of the lawsuit followed a similar pattern to past cases involving the sexual abuse and harassment of agricultural workers, as detailed in a 2013 investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in collaboration with FRONTLINE and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (IRP).

The investigation found that since 1998 — the year of the first federal lawsuit against an agricultural company for failing to stop harassment or abuse — there have been 41 such cases filed in federal courts. As the review found:

Among these were at least 153 people who alleged workplace abuses, the vast majority by their superiors. Of the lawsuits, 7 out of 8 involved workers claiming physical harassment, assault or rape.

According to civil court documents, in nearly every case, workers made complaints to company management and, among those, 85 percent faced retaliation – such as being demoted, fired or further harassed. In their review of the federal cases, CIR and IRP could not find a single case in which the men accused of sexual assault or rape in the civil suits had been criminally prosecuted.

In the Moreno Farms case, the five women will each be granted a U visa, a special form of visa that grants legal protections to victims of abuse in exchange for cooperation with law enforcement. But advocates for victims rights say that until there is greater awareness of such protections, the fear of retaliation will continue to keep many workers from coming forward.

As Rep. Luis Guitierrez, (D.-Ill.), said in FRONTLINE’s 2013 documentary, Rape in the Fields:

“Let’s recognize something, 1,400 people are deported every day in the United States of America. There is fear and real terror in the immigrant community.”

Related Film: Rape in the Fields

FRONTLINE, Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the University of California, Berkeley team up to investigate the hidden reality of rape on the job for immigrant women.

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