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Women rising for justice at work

By Dennis Rios on June 11, 2018
poster of woman

With the recent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois, we wanted to share some ideas...

I attended the 3rd Annual Modern-Day American Worker Conference, organized by Legal Assistance Foundation (LAF). This year the focus of the conference was on women and the obstacles and injustices they face at work. The event brought together an impressive group of legal advocates, community organizers, government attorneys, journalists, and artists. The panelists and presenters, all of which were women, provided an in-depth look at the challenges women face at work.

Here is what I learned:

  • Most low wage jobs are occupied by women. One-third of US jobs are low wage, and two-thirds of those are occupied by women.
  • Sexually harassed and assault is common. Low wage immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault in the US. Aside from receiving lower wages than men, women seem to be under constant threat of sexual assault and harassment.
  • Harassment and abuse are underreported. This is especially true for farmworkers, domestic workers, and those in the service sector. Many employers and supervisors demand sexual favors and threaten workers with dismissal or deportation if they refuse to comply with such demands.
  • Several women in Illinois have successfully confronted their abusers. We heard testimonials from several women who endured sexual assault, harassment, and other abuses at the workplace. These women confronted their employer’s abusive practices and were able to get justice in their cases. We heard testimony from a survivor who was sexually assaulted by her supervisor at a Burger King while pregnant. Eventually, after going to court, she was able to obtain legal immigration status and over one million dollars in compensation. Hearing these stories was both inspiring and heartbreaking. After going through these hardships, these brave women now focus their efforts on educating and empowering other women who may be going through similar situations.
  • Women struggle to get courts to believe them. When confronted in court men usually deny any such wrongdoing, and it’s often difficult to get the court to rule in favor of a single female victim. A New York Times article found that often it takes the testimony of 3 to 4 women for courts to consider the testimony credible against that of a man.
  • Abuse is generally reported after leaving the job. It is said that 50 workers are assaulted each day in the US. Workers generally do not come forward until they leave the job and find another source of income since their families often depend on the sole income to survive. For immigrants, there is the additional language barrier and sense of isolation having no family or support circle to assist, as well as the constant threat of deportation.
  • Abused immigrants have special protections. The US offers visas for crime victims. These visas provide legal status for the victim and their immediate family. This sends a message to victims saying “If you come forward and denounce the abuse you will be protected!” Often victims do not come forward because deportation is a very common threat, but such treats by the employer should be considered retaliation and obstruction of justice.
  • Collaboration is needed to achieve positive outcomes. The presenters agreed that there needs to be more collaboration between legal advocates and community organizations to educate and empower women to come forward and denounce abuses. Collaboration can also help develop better more efficient strategies for obtaining a positive outcome in these cases. Of course, having legal representation is always important, but some pointed out that community organizations and leaders can implement other strategies to pressure employers into taking action, like protesting outside their business or homes. This kind of pressure which impacts the employer’s reputation and social status is often more persuasive than a private legal battle.
  • Si se puede. “Yes, we can” in English, was one of the key takeaways from this event. Together we can help end these injustices for women at work. This slogan was used by the Obama campaign in 2008 and was taken from Dolores Huerta who has been fighting for farmworkers and women’s rights for decades. Dolores received the presidential medal of freedom award in 2012.

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