Author Bernice Yeung tells Moneyish how her new book digs into the alleged rape and sexual harassment of illegal immigrants in America
Journalist Bernice Yeung wants to tell stories of those sexual abuse victims whose suffering has fallen on deaf ears.
In a story depicted in Yeung’s new book, Georgina Hernández, a Mexican immigrant in her mid-30’s, describes working as a janitor at a Los Angeles hotel for less than a week the first time that her boss allegedly raped her.
Hernandéz told Yeung that her supervisor said he needed to talk to her. He insisted on meeting in his car, which he drove to a separate part of the parking garage. Then, Hernández says, he raped her.
As an illegal immigrant dependent on her income from the hotel to care for herself and her children, Hernández was terrified to come forward. And so began a series of alleged rapes which she said resulted in a pregnancy that she aborted. The reported rapes concluded a few weeks later when Hernández told her boss she refused to have sex with him, even if it meant losing her job.
Which it did. Hernandez was fired two months into her job after calling in sick from nausea and headaches related to her pregnancy and stress from the assaults. She filed a police report and a sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer, which led to the supervisor’s firing (although he was never convicted on rape charges), and a monetary settlement from the company for an undisclosed amount.
Yeung’s book “In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Harassment Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers,” out March 20, recounts multiple similar stories. At a time when leading actresses, politicians and activists have spoken out as part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the book focuses on the forgotten victims — primarily low-wage workers in the agricultural or housekeeping fields — who often fear speaking out because, without legal residency status, they face possible deportation if they come forward.
Yeung, 40, first became interested in the “stories of people who don’t normally get heard,” as a journalism grad fresh out of Northwestern University. In 2012, Yeung — a journalist at Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s online publication — worked on the Emmy-nominated documentary “Rape in the Fields,” about the sexual abuse of farmworkers.
Since then, Yeung has uncovered dozens of similar incidents of alleged sexual misconduct in industries that rely heavily on migrant labor. “This has been an open secret within the [agriculture] industry for generations,” she said.
According to a 2012 report from Human Rights Watch, 80% of the 50 female farmworkers whom the watchdog interviewed said they had “experienced some form of abuse during their career,” senior HRW researcher Clara Long told Moneyish. The cases include a California lettuce company worker who alleged that her boss raped her and warned her to “remember it’s because of him that [she had the] job.” In another, a farm supervisor in New York allegedly groped his employees’ breasts and buttocks, threatening to fire or report them to immigration if they resisted.
“You may be subject to immigration enforcement if you report,” Long explained, adding that these workers are often “desperate” to work and send money back to their families.
The #MeToo movement, she said, has had a “blind spot” that has left these workers excluded, and believes that their best hope is mass legalization to end their undocumented status. Long blamed the “enormous power disparities” between these women and their abusers for keeping their stories silent — along with a political climate that she characterized as hateful toward immigrants.
Many farm workers and janitors whom Yeung has met said they were proud of the women coming forward as a result of #MeToo, even if they initially felt ignored by the movement. “They felt a bit indignant and left out,” she said. Even so, revelations of misconduct from famous personalities have given them hope.
The California Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit coalition of farmers and ranchers throughout the state, told Moneyish that it has taken steps to battle this abusive culture.
“Alleged violations of harassment, misconduct and rape laws on farms and agricultural settings should be pursued and prosecuted,” a Federation representative said in a statement. “Farm labor contractors and supervisors are required to take the training annually, in order to renew their state license.”
With her book, Yeung hopes to draw more attention to the formerly ignored.
“Not everybody has the same level of power or privilege,” she said. “The next step is to say, how do we make it easier for everyone else to say #MeToo?”
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