Immigrant Women Kick Harassment to the Curb

June 09, 2016

Every day in Massachusetts, an army of immigrant women prepare to work in our factories, office buildings, and food processing facilities. Facing language barriers, poverty, and lack of resources, too many of these hard-working women find themselves prime targets for sexual harassment, assault, and even rape on the job.
The statistics are frightening. In 2013, workplace homicide was the second leading cause of job death among women workers. Women workers also experienced 70% of the lost-time injuries from workplace violence. Instances of sexual harassment and assault abound. Over 50% of women experience sexual harassment at work each year, yet only 25% of those victimized have told anyone and only 5% filed a formal complaint. Worst still, studies have practically ignored the plight of working immigrant women, despite their extraordinary disadvantages.
“Too many immigrant women are being intimidated at the workplace because many workers without immigration status don’t think they have any rights,” said MassCOSH Board Member and Worker Center Women’s Committee leader Erica Sánchez. “They think they can’t report what’s happening to them to the police, the government, and sometimes even to MassCOSH.”
Latinas Transforming Research into Action to Stop Harassment and Violence at Work (Latinas TRASH Violence at Work) seeks to bring workplace justice to these women by putting them in the driver’s seat of identifying the problems and solutions to sexual harassment and violence.  Thanks to seed funding from UMass Lowell’s Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace, members of MassCOSH’s Women’s Committee received training on how to be scientific investigators and are fanning out throughout Greater Boston, conducting interviews to document these workers’ experiences and get an accurate picture of the sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. They also will collect information about workplace practices that they believe would protect workers, and create recommendations for workplace and public policies. 
“As immigrant workers themselves, these women investigators will have access to workers who rarely discuss harassment due to the real fear of repercussions,” says MassCOSH Worker Center Organizer Milagros Barreto. “We are talking about the ability to shine a spotlight on this issue like never before.”

The findings will be used to develop health protection and promotion interventions and public policy recommendations. The findings will help set priorities for MassCOSH Worker Center members and will be presented to low-wage workers, worker centers, academic community members, policy officials, and other interested stakeholders to impact workplace practices and policies across the Commonwealth. 
Although the impact of Latinas TRASH Violence at Work will affect thousands of workers, for Sánchez, the project has taken on a very personal significance.
“I can help other people by helping them learn how they can protect themselves and how to help make sure their rights are respected,” she explains. “Many of these people don’t know their rights, and we can help them. They should not be afraid, and the conditions that make them afraid in the first place should not exist.”