By Lily Kuo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of female immigrant farm workers in the United States are at risk of sexual violence and harassment, the organization Human Rights Watch said in a report on Wednesday.
The 95-page report titled "Cultivating Fear" detailed instances of rape, stalking, unwanted touching and verbal abuse by supervisors, employers, and others in positions of authority over women and girls working in fields, packing houses, and other agricultural workplaces across the country.
The report draws attention to the vulnerability of unauthorized immigrants especially in the agricultural work force where at least 50 percent are undocumented, according to Human Rights Watch, and may fear being deported if they complain.
"Farmworker women can feel utterly powerless in the face of abusive supervisors or employers, and with good reason," said Grace Meng, author of the report.
The report, based on over 160 interviews of farmworkers, attorneys, police and members of the agricultural industry, found that almost all named sexual violence and harassment as an important concern.
Of those, nearly all of 52 farmworkers interviewed said they had suffered sexual violence or harassment or knew other who had.
The report found that foremen, supervisors, farm labor contractors, and company owners were abusing multiple women and often over long periods of time.
With the ability to hire and fire workers as well as allocate certain benefits like better hours, these individuals were in positions of power over the female workers, Human Rights Watch said.
In one instance a woman in California said a supervisor at a lettuce company raped her and afterwards told her she should remember that it was because of him she had a job.
A woman in New York said that a supervisor would touch the breasts and buttocks of the women while they worked. When they resisted, he would threaten to call immigration.
The report noted that often entire families work together on a farm or field and retaliation against a woman who complains could mean the firing of her whole family.
According to Human Rights Watch, farm workers who had filed sexual harassment lawsuits also said they had been "blackballed" and unable to get jobs at other farms.
(Reporting by Lily Kuo)