New Report on Immigrant Workers Reveals Rampant Workplace Abuse

That grilled chicken salad that you ate for lunch? There’s a good chance that everything in it, from the tomatoes to the lettuce to the bird itself was picked or processed by a Latina. Some 640,000 women (mostly Latinas) perform farm work and another estimated 63,000 work in poultry farms and processing centers.

In both cases, women endure backbreaking work in return for little pay, extreme physical danger, abuse from employers and rampant sexual harassment, according to Injustice on Our Plates, a recent study by the renowned civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center.

Researchers interviewed some 150 women and gathered new and existing statistics on women’s work lives. Below are excerpts from the report. For the full report, click here:

Inequality in pay: The average annual income of female crop workers is just $11,250, compared to $16,250 for men.

Wage theft & inadequate working conditions: The majority of the women said they worked for poverty wages and have been cheated, at one time or another, out of their wages. Wage theft was the most common complaint among the women interviewed. Many said their pay stubs routinely show far fewer hours than they actually worked. Sometimes, they are not paid at all for their work. Many reported injuries from the repetitive and strenuous movement required to keep up with the voracious production demands. Complaints are met with firing or threats to call immigration.

Rock-bottom wages: One tomato picker said she makes $2.50 per tray of grape tomatoes she picks. A typical 12-hour workday, if all goes smoothly, she can fill 12 trays or about 300 pounds, earning $30 per day, less than the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Yet her one-day harvest retails for about $1,000.

Workplace abuse: A worker named Rosa stood for up to 14 hours in a refrigerated room, five nights a week, de-skinning and de-boning chicken breasts with scissors. Her quota: 15 breasts cleaned every minute, 900 per hour. Bathroom breaks were out of the question, so she held her urine.  Another worker, Luz, suffered a miscarriage after being ordered to lift 70-pound containers.

In the infamous Postville meat packing plant Agriprocessors, which was the subject of a huge government raid in 2008, one supervisor would hire undocumented workers if they promised to buy a car from him and agree to have the cost deducted from their weekly pay.

Pesticide Poisoning: Each year, farmworkers report about 20,000 cases of pesticide poisoning—a number that is likely larger because of underreporting by undocumented immigrants. The health effects can be devastating, especially to pregnant women who have no health insurance. One child of a tomato picker in Florida was born without arms and legs. “Another was so deformed that it was impossible to determine gender without an autopsy after the child died.”

Sexual harassment and violence: The report quotes one study of 150 Mexican female farmworkers, in which 80 percent said they had experienced some sort of sexual harassment. It is so widespread on big farms that they are often called “green motels” or “panty fields.” In packing houses and processing plants, offers of sex and lewd comments are rampant, and the men who make them often get away with them because of the women do not know their rights or are scared to report them. Olivia, a processing plant worker, was rendered unconscious and raped by a supervisor after a 12-hour shift. Too scared to go to the police, she complained to upper management. One supervisor’s response: "What’s so bad about that? He left you in one piece, didn’t he?"