A sexual harrassment case against Cowiche-based Evans Fruit Co. will be featured nationally in a primetime documentary Tuesday on the PBS news show “Frontline.”
The case against Evans was rejected by a jury, but “Frontline” producers believe it illustrates a problem facing female farm workers across the country.
The documentary, titled “Rape in the Fields,” will feature the stories of female farm workers at several agriculture operations and examines barriers that exacerbate the problem of sexual abuse in agriculture. A Spanish-language version of the documentary titled “Violacion de un Sueno” (“Violation of a Dream”) will air on Univision on Saturday.
“It’s difficult for workers to discuss because it’s such a challenging issue. There are a lot of taboos,” said Bernice Yeung, a reporter with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif., who worked on the documentary. “When you add layers of economic instability and documentation status issues, it makes it especially difficult.”
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Andres Cediel, a producer of the documentary, added that the year-long project sheds light on an issue that has long been ignored nationally.
“A lot of workers don’t know that they have rights,” Cediel said. “They don’t know the things happening to them are illegal.” In April, a federal jury rejected all sexual harassment claims against Evans Fruit, one of the country’s largest apple growers, following a 2 1/2-week trial in U.S. District Court in Yakima. In its lawsuit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged at least 14 female employees of the company’s operations in Sunnyside were subjected to unwanted sexual advances by supervisors, particularly a since-fired foreman.
Lawyers for Evans argued the company that the women’s testimony often conflicted and that none of the plaintiffs ever complained of sexual harassment while they were employed.
A separate but related EEOC lawsuit that alleged the company retaliated against employees who filed the harassment complaints was dismissed in May.
Cediel said the documentary highlights changes that are being made to prevent sexual abuse. Those involve better sexual harassment policies and employee training, Cediel said, as well as more checks on supervisors and foremen.
“Because of the way the system is set up, workers are reliant on their foreman and it puts an inordinate amount of power in the position,” he said. “It seems to me we see the most success when growers are more actively involved out in the field.”
Yeung, who is writing news stories for print that will accompany the release of the documentary, said the investigative report began by looking at 41 sexual abuse cases that have been filed nationwide against growers in federal court since 1998.
“That’s how we began to surface some of the women that had been affected,” she said. “Soon people would start to come to us with stories.”
Cediel said one of his biggest concerns is that among the 41 civil cases, no criminal charges were ever brought by prosecutors, even when a jury agreed sexual abuse had taken place.
The documentary will air on PBS and online at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Spanish-language documentary will air on Univision at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Yeung said the documentary demonstrates how basic workplace policies and regulatory systems have failed immigrant workers.
“For me, it’s a story about what some of America’s most vulnerable workers are facing on the job,” she said.
“Rape in the Fields,” a documentary about the plight of female farm workers and the sexual harassment and abuse they face, will air on PBS and online at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Spanish-language documentary will air on Univision at 4 p.m. Saturday.
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