It has been nearly six months since the women who stepped forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein helped start a national conversation on sexual harassment. Yet while we’re only just now being forced to reckon with our most famous predators, the women working in our country’s most vulnerable industries—domestic workers, agricultural workers, janitors—have been fighting the same battle on the sidelines for years.
Journalist Bernice Yeung chronicles the insidious ways in which working class women are uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment and abuse. In her new book, In a Day’s Work, which is out today, Yeung finds that the women who do the essential jobs of caring for our children and elders, cleaning our offices, and growing our food, are often undocumented, working for low pay, and in isolated environments.
These are the very same factors that make it difficult for these women to organize. In some instances, government policies actively work against them, such as the fact that domestic and agricultural workers—jobs historically held by black Americans—were left out of New Deal era labor protections as a way to maintain racial hierarchies. In other cases, unions have been slow to see sexual harassment as a workplace issue, instead defining it as a “women’s issue.”
But as In a Day’s Work documents, women have been working for years to change this dynamic. I spoke with Yeung about sexual harassment in low-wage industries, the challenges organized labor faces in addressing this issue, and how the women she spoke to feel about the Me Too movement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your book goes through women in low-income industries facing sexual harassment in fields as varied as agriculture and domestic work, and as janitors. What were some of the common threads you found?
There are some circumstances and dynamics that are similar across the board. These are jobs primarily taken by immigrant workers, immigrant women, where the wages tend to be low. If they’re dealing with an unscrupulous, exploitative supervisor, they’re set up to be particularly vulnerable to various types of abuses including very extreme sexual harassment, assaults, and rape. For a lot of these women workers, there were circumstances that were used against them to coerce them into unwanted sexual behavior at work by their supervisors or their co-workers. And then those same circumstances were used to keep them quiet.
Specifically, they might have tenuous immigration status and so threats of deportation and calling immigration authorities were often used against them. Then there’s the fact that these are paycheck-to-paycheck jobs and these women might be supporting families, kids, and maybe extended family back in their home country. So a lot of people are dependent on their paycheck and they were very mindful about what would happen if they made a complaint or if they tried to quit.
And finally the other element that’s really significant across these industries is isolation. We’ve heard stories from farm workers who said that their supervisors would, under the pretense of moving them from one field to another, make them get into their truck. That’s where the assaults happened, and then they would take them out even further to more remote areas and again, terrible things would happen. Literally one farm worker said that her supervisor said to her, “If you scream, no one will hear you.” Similarly in janitorial work, we heard reports of women being assaulted in supply closets and in bathrooms where they said that the supervisors knew there would be no security cameras. For domestic workers, these are people who are working literally behind closed doors and in people’s homes and they might be the only employee in someone’s house.
All of these factors—poverty, tenuous immigration status, isolation—conspire against these workers.
We also see that there’s evidence that across the board that women are often not believed when they come forward with their stories. In what ways are there even more barriers for low-income workers when they actually do decide to come forward?
Many of women that I’ve spoken to feel that their cases are not taken seriously when they do try to report. They feel that their their complaints are diminished or that they might be received but then nothing is done.
For many of the workers in this book, there are additional issues as simple as language barriers. It’s already difficult enough for most workers who have experienced sexual harassment to report—there’s feelings of shame and embarrassment, all of those unwarranted, but very real reactions. Then you layer on top of that the fact that maybe the worker not only doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it, but also doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it in a language that she doesn’t really speak very well.
We’ve also heard frequently from many of the workers that they weren’t sure what the laws were around sexual harassment. And then there’s this element of subcontracting, these third party entities that have often hired these workers, so when something bad happens at work there can also be confusion around who is responsible and who they should complain to.
It struck me how little information that we have on these cases. Even people who are actively trying to help and uncover sexual harassment can only really reach a few workers when there are, say, janitors in every commercial building in the country. Do you think we have any sort of clear sense as to the extent of this problem?
I think this is one of the hardest questions. Having done this reporting I think it would be overstating it to say that we have any idea how often this happens. The ultimate point is that this is a critically underreported problem. Sexual violence as a general matter is so deeply underreported that when it comes to the more extreme end of the spectrum—sexual assault and rape—only one-third of people actually ever go to authorities about it.
Any time we’re talking about formal complaints, we’re talking about a deep undercount. So I think anything that we see at an official statistical level is really just the tip of the iceberg. The number that has really surprised me, which is some kind of reference point, is that when it comes to very extreme sexual harassment, the Department of Justice estimates that on average about 50 workers are sexually assaulted or raped at work every day. That’s coming from all industries, clients, co-workers, supervisors. But this is not an isolated situation.
We hear about how isolation makes these workers vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment. But can you talk about how it also makes it difficult for these women to organize?
Traditionally you would organize within a workplace to get everybody in one warehouse or one factory to all join the union. But what do you do when it’s just one janitor in one building in a huge city working in the middle of the night? How do you get critical mass and how do you reach all of these individuals to to get them organized? I think that’s one of the challenges that organized labor has really faced with some of these industries. Same with domestic work.
There have been some really interesting strategies. For instance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has partnered with a lot of local domestic worker organizations throughout the country and is meeting workers where they are. They’ll go to the parks where nannies or domestic workers are bringing the kids that they’re taking care of and talk to them there. And then for janitors there are organizations like the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund in California that literally go into the buildings at night undercover, make contact with janitors, and start to develop relationships that way.
One scene you describe in your book that I found really interesting was a meeting in Southern California where a female union member was announcing issues that membership had voted on as strike priorities. Everyone agreed on wages and workload, but when sexual harassment and came up the men there actually started booing. What are the ways in which the labor movement itself has failed to prioritize sexual harassment?
What’s been a really interesting dynamic is the role of the union on this issue. The truth is the union has to walk a narrow line and their responsibility is to represent their members and sometimes it’s one member accusing another member of misconduct. They are duty bound, as they should be, to making sure that each member gets fair representation and fair treatment.
I think also there might be a hesitancy to address this issue more directly because of resistance from male leadership and male membership, as that anecdote from the California janitor’s union demonstrates. They were in a circumstance where they had many female leaders who were sensitive to this issue and a male union president who believed that this was an issue that the union should take on. It took that kind of commitment from the top because there was resistance.
As you noted, the men booed one of the women who tried to raise [sexual harassment] as a priority. It took union leadership tamping that down and saying, “no, this is not acceptable, let’s go back to our values as organized labor, we believe in safe workplaces.” They had to bring it back to core values as opposed to these issues that are often perceived as “women’s issues.”
There has definitely been a shift and there have been some unions that have been really outspoken on this issue. They tend to be unions where there are more women in their membership.
We often think of the labor movement as white male industrial workers rather than the people of color and immigrant women in your book, who increasingly make up the bulk of the working class. Do you think this image has stymied progress when it comes to seeing sexual harassment as a workplace issue?
Yes, the kind of prototypical model of who is a union member, you think about manufacturing, you think about construction. Those who make up the majority of the workers in these industries are men.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that this is the lens through which a lot of these issues are viewed. Traditionally too, unions have focused on wages and workplace conditions from a very specific point of view. Wages everybody understands, but working conditions, you’re thinking about maybe your hours and your physical safety around heavy machinery, things like that. Now as more women are entering some of these fields there’s greater awareness that part of workplace safety is a safety from physical violence, including sexual violence.
You’ve been working on this reporting for years, but the Me Too movement in the last several months has really pushed this issue to the national forefront. How have you seen this affecting the workers that you’ve talked to?
When Me Too first started, I talked to some of the farmworkers and janitors who are featured in the book and I asked them how they felt about it. Initially they were so excited to see that this issue was coming to the forefront. It was, for them, a really powerful moment. But there was also a little bit of a sense that they felt left out, that they had been trying to raise their issue for a long time and that nobody had paid them any attention.
This movement has begun to shift to a place where everybody is seeking a greater sense of inclusion for workers like those featured in this book, which is really great to see. You’re seeing farm workers marching in unity with Hollywood women. I know there’s been some non-public events between workers of all industries and there’s been a great effort to include low-wage and immigrant workers. That’s all part of a really important push and groundswell.
In terms of how it will impact these workers, that remains to be seen. But it’s really critical that they’re being included, because as similar as many of these dynamics are across industries, the dynamics play out differently. The workers in this book, their circumstances are different than women working in the media or politics or Hollywood. Their considerations are different. So while we need this overarching unity among female workers, we also need to pay attention to the differences within industries.
Are you optimistic that this movement will continue to include low-wage workers in a meaningful way?
I think there’s clearly a sincere intention to make sure that all workers are included. What we need to happen next is a deeper exploration of the structural and systemic reasons that sexual harassment exists generally, and then also the very particular logistical economic realities within different industries. Right now we’re talking about sharing our stories, and that is critical. But the point really is not that we only share stories, it’s that we figure out how to get underneath all of this and start talking about prevention.