warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Report: Immigrant Women Exploited In U.S. Food Industry

Jennifer Schultz |
November 22, 2010 | 3:19 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) released a report Monday exposing the abuse and exploitation that immigrant women face in

Courtesy of Creative Commons
Courtesy of Creative Commons
the U.S. food industry. The report states that undocumented immigrant women in the food industry face sexual abuse, constant humiliation, hazardous work conditions and continually declining pay. 

The report chronicles the lives of immigrant women from the time they crossed the border to their current workplace situations. It is based around anecdotes from immigrant women, and exposes issues including sexual abuse and unsafe working conditions for immigrant women in the food industry.

The study states that undocumented women in the food industry are constantly being taken advantage of sexually because of their low status. According to the report, the “majority” of women say they have been sexually harassed at their workplace. Others were unaware of the concept and did not know their rights as workers.

“Sexual predators view farmworker women and other undocumented women as ‘perfect victims’ because they are isolated, thought to lack credibility, generally do not know their rights, and may be vulnerable because they lack legal status,” the report says.

Issues of hazardous working conditions include the use of pesticides. Pesticides have a wide range of effects on field workers, ranging from feeling sick after smelling the pesticides all day at work to having their children born with birth defects due to the toxic chemicals. Birth defects documented due to pesticide exposure include mutations and missing limbs.

According to the report, about 60 percent of agricultural field workers, 25 percent of workers in the food processing industry and 20 to 25 percent of food service workers are undocumented immigrants.

“Despite their contributions, undocumented immigrants exist in a shadow economy — subject to the whims of unscrupulous employers, unable to assert their rights and, for all practical purposes, beyond the protection of labor laws that protect the rest of us from abuse, discrimination and wage cheating in the workplace,” the report says.

The report concluded with a call to action on the part of the U.S. government, citing a need for action from Congress, Federal Bureaus and state governments. Specifically, bureaus such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Department of Homeland Security were called to action.

“Despite our dependence on these undocumented workers, we allow this shameful exploitation to continue. It is our responsibility to stop it. … The only way to bring a measure of fairness to the system — to truly improve the living and working conditions for immigrant women — is to enact wholesale reforms at the federal level,” the report reads.

Proposed legislation includes immigration reforms focusing on paths to legalization, increased fines against abusive employers and increased investigation of wage-theft against low-wage workers. 

The report states that researchers interviewed 150 women working in the food industry who either are or were undocumented immigrants. The women were workers across the U.S., including California, Florida, Iowa and New York, and the interviews were conducted during the beginning of 2010, from January to March.

The SPLC describes itself as a “nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.” Though the SPLC is headquartered in Alabama and primarily focuses on fighting injustice in the South, it has expanded its goals to the national level for studies such as this.


Reach reporter Jennifer Schultz here.

Follow reporter Jennifer Schultz on Twitter: @neon_jenn.

Sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.