(Above Image: Christian Mendez)
By: Karla Martinez
MECCA, Calif. — For female field workers in the Eastern Coachella Valley, getting to and from work often means paying $10 a day for transportation or facing the prospect of being sexually harassed by male workers on the way to the fields.
A new vanpool program seeks to address this daily challenge by providing safe and low cost transportation for women workers. Lideres Campesinas, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for women working in agriculture, began pushing for the project in 2012. After three years of canvassing neighborhoods for signatures, the program is now a step closer to being launched.
The vanpool pilot program will be funded by the Sunline Transit Agency along with local nonprofits and Riverside County. Local field workers who participate will be able to choose a driver from their “cuadrilla,” or work group, to drive the van. The driver and the work group will then decide on a pick-up location or pick-up route near their homes that is easily accessible for the workers.
Though the vanpool program is being championed as a way to prevent sexual harassment against female field workers, when the program launches next year, it will offer transportation services to both men and women.
Other local agricultural communities like Kern County have had success with similar vanpool programs, says Ramona Felix, assistant coordinator of the Lideres Campesinas’ Victims of Sexual Harassment Program. She hopes for the same success in the Eastern Coachella Valley, in order to combat what she says are common instances of sexual harassment experienced by women during their commutes to and from the fields.
“Women are harassed verbally with sexual language and many women are uncomfortable,” Felix explains. “Then they go to work just to find someone else who speaks to them that way; it really affects them.”
The problem is not unique to the East Valley, nor is it isolated to commute times. Nearly all of the fieldworkers interviewed for a 2012 study by Human Rights Watch said they had “experienced sexual violence or harassment or knew other workers who had.”
The exact number of women who daily experience harassment or violence is difficult to determine because of the nature of surveying a largely migrant, seasonal, and undocumented population that is often reluctant to come forward. But advocates say the problem is widespread.
“When this is accomplished, it’s going to be one of the biggest victories here in the valley.” — Nancy Gonzalez
A new bill that went into effect at the beginning of this year aims to address the problem by barring contractors who manage fieldworkers from receiving a license if they have been found to have committed sexual assault or harassment within the last three years. The bill also requires supervisors to undergo yearly sexual harassment prevention training.
According to Manuela Ramirez, an organizer with Lideres Campesinas, often female agricultural workers don’t report instances of sexual harassment out of fear of retaliation from their employer, who holds all the power in the workplace.
In addition, many field worker’s undocumented status makes them unlikely to feel comfortable “reporting sexual violence, sexual harassment, and other workplace abuses in myriad ways,” according to the Human Rights Watch report.
“[Many women] fear that they may lose their jobs,” Ramirez explains. “Most of the time these are single mothers who are raising their children and because of that fear of being left without pay to raise their family, they would rather stay quiet.”
Often ranchers and chiefs are in charge of organizing transportation for their workers, charging $10 a day or $50 a week just for getting to the fields, according to Nancy Gonzalez of Lideres Campesinas.
With the vanpool program, migrant and farmworker families will have “money for our children, for food, to pay for the roof over our heads,” says Gonzalez.
The road to funding the pilot vanpool was not easy, explains Gonzalez.
“We had to collect signatures, and on some occasions, we were going into the field where people worked, and the chiefs wouldn’t let [the workers] speak to us,” she said.
Last year, Lideres Campesinas announced the vanpool program was finally moving forward, but Gonzalez said Lideres is still waiting for a program manager to be selected.
“The idea of the vanpools has not reached an end,” Gonzalez said. “The next step is to wait and see who is going to manage the project because the funding is already set. We have to keep supporting this until this [vanpool program] becomes a reality.”
Still, Gonzalez sees the project as marking a significant community achievement, and she hopes the pilot program will eventually expand to help other agricultural workers.
“When this is accomplished, it’s going to be one of the biggest victories here in the valley,” Gonzalez said.
About the author:
Karla Martinez has been a youth reporter with Coachella Unincorporated for four years, where she has produced numerous articles and reflections on issues like community violence prevention to voter registration. In April 2015, Karla won the Young Lady of the Year Award for Riverside County District 4 for her work with the Land Use Planning Awareness project. View Karla’s author page here.