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Low-wage immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. How can they say #MeToo?

Every day, about 50 people are sexually assaulted or raped in the workplace in the U.S. While the entertainment industry and the political world have been in the headlines, the problem extends to those who work in hotels, clean offices, serve food. Judy Woodruff talks to Bernice Yeung of Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and Alejandra Valles of SEIU United Service Workers West.

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  • Miles O’Brien:

    But, first, we return to our series of conversations about sexual assault and harassment around the country.

    Yesterday, Judy Woodruff recorded this discussion about the extraordinary challenges low-wage service workers face when they come forward to share their stories.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Every day in the U.S., about 50 people are sexually assaulted or raped in the workplace, according to the Department of Justice. It's a problem that extends well beyond the entertainment industry and politics to all lines of work. That includes the people who work in hotels, clean offices and serve food.

    Alejandra Valles is the secretary-treasurer of SEIU United Service Workers West. Her union in California represents over 45,000 service workers. She has been spearheading efforts to prioritize issues facing women in the union. And Bernice Yeung, reporter for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and author of the forthcoming book "In a Day's Work- The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers."

    Thank you both for being with us.

    Bernice Yeung, let me start with you.

    We have been hearing so much lately in the news about men in the entertainment industry, men in the news media and politics going after women. Tell us about the women you have been reporting on and talking to. Who are they?

  • Bernice Yeung:

    These are the women, they're immigrant women working in low-wage jobs, essentially the jobs that remain invisible, and sometimes on purpose, the women on night shift cleaning office buildings, the women picking our fruits and vegetables in the fields, cleaning our hotel rooms, taking care of our children as domestic workers, people who are often easy to overlook.

    But they are women who often are laboring in isolation, and that makes them sometimes particularly vulnerable to very extreme forms of sexual harassment and sexual assault on the job.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How are their experiences of harassment and worse different from what we have been hearing about on the part of other women?

  • Bernice Yeung:

    Well, I think that there are very many similarities.

    There is essentially a shared abuse of power by somebody in a position of power. And in a situation of a low-wage immigrant worker, there are very many ways in which that abuse — that power can be abused.

    For example, when you are going paycheck to paycheck, the ability to hire, fire, take away hours, these are very powerful weapons that supervisors can use against the workers. It makes it very difficult to come forward and very difficult to report this type of abuse.

    It's also used against them to keep them silent. The other very kind of prominent difference between what we're seeing in the news media and the workers that I have been covering is immigration status. That is often another threat that is used against them, threats of deportation.

    And for a lot of the women who are sometimes single mothers providing for families back in the home country, this is just not — you know, separation from their families is just not something that they can really contemplate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to show everyone now a clip from a documentary that you were the lead reporter on. This was a documentary done by the PBS program Frontline in conjunction with Reveal.

    Let's take a look.

  • Woman (through interpreter):

    That person tried to rape me. He hit me. I don't know how I defended myself. He knew that there weren't any cameras. I was screaming, but no one could hear me, no one could see me.

    I went to the office to turn in my keys, and I told the supervisor, "I can't do this anymore."

    He said, "Why?" And I told him, "You know what you're doing. You know what's happening."

    And he said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

    And I said, "Yes, you know what I'm talking about."

    And when I left, I told him, "There will be someone. Someone will speak out."

    I never imagined that I would be the one to speak out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very difficult to watch.

    And I want to turn now to Alejandra Valles.

    You showed this to members, some women who were members of your union. What was the reaction when they saw this documentary?

  • Alejandra Valles:

    We showed this documentary to over 100 of our top rank-and-file leaders, many janitors, but many women of color.

    And the reaction was shocking. One woman after another woman stood up. By the end of our meeting, we had spent the entire time talking about not just sexual harassment, but rape and assault on some of these tenants' desks and some of the building floors.

    So it was just an incredible, powerful moment of reflection, of not just incidents that had happened in the last several months since the documentary had come out, but going back years, to the '80s, to the '90s.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know, Alejandra Valles, that you have worked in California to change the laws to try to help these women, to put in a new system that allows them to find a way to report.

    Tell us just a little about that.

  • Alejandra Valles:

    The women actually themselves, which started a group called the Promotoras, which are really the teachers that create consciousness in the work site around sexual assault, rape and harassment.

    And so they decided that they wanted to do something to really tackle this underground economy in all of the state, not just for union workers.

    And so we fought all of 2016 to pass AB-1978, that would ensure every janitorial contractor in the industry had to register with the state and had to ensure that they provided training to the workers that really spoke to those workers specifically.

    We know that what we're seeing right now with the #MeToo movement, there is so much around policy and laws, but unless you really speak to a workplace and the culture of that workplace, you are not going to have the impact that you want to ensure that you could start changing culture.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bernice Yeung, how many states or how much of the country has protections in place like what we're hearing Alejandra describe in California?

  • Bernice Yeung:

    Unfortunately, I think too few.

    California has been really activated around this issue related to farmwork and janitorial services. But I'm hard-pressed to think of very many other states that actually have targeted these industries specifically for sexual harassment protections.

    They're just treated like everybody else, but, as we know, their circumstances are different.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what needs to be done? I want to ask both of you.

    Bernice, you have been reporting on this for quite some time. What do other states, whether it's the labor unions or other groups, what do they need to be aware of? What do they need to change?

  • Bernice Yeung:

    What I have discovered in looking at farmworkers and janitors and other low-wage immigrant workers, is that training can be really crucial.

    Once workers are empowered to exercise their rights, they will. And, furthermore, these trainings are a very strong message and symbol oftentimes to bad actors that this behavior will not be tolerated. And it also encourages people to come forward and to say this shouldn't just fall on the victim to report the issue. There should be allies.

    There should be male and female co-workers and colleagues who come forward and say, this is not OK, this is not an environment and a workplace in which we will tolerate this behavior.

    And I think that's the culture change we need to see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Alejandra Valles, what would you add to that? What do other states need to know? What kinds of things do they need to do, whether it's at the state or the federal or the local level?

  • Alejandra Valles:

    Dusting off your H.R. policy, it is not enough.

    What we need to do is look at every workplace specifically, give workers a voice, give survivors a voice. We all know, whether it's in the break room or on the sets, what the culture of that workplace looks like. We have a transformative moment right now to say (SPEAKING SPANISH) and to change the culture from within industry by industry.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is such an important message and a powerful message, important for everyone to hear.

    Alejandra Valles, thank you.

    Bernice Yeung, thank you both.

  • Alejandra Valles:

    Thank you.

  • Bernice Yeung:

    Thank you for having us.

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