On the Job

In a Day?s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America?s Most Vulnerable Workers BY Bernice Yeung. The New Press. Hardcover, 240 pages. $25.

The cover of In a Day?s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America?s Most Vulnerable Workers

While #MeToo has exposed the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in a handful of high-profile industries, its priorities have so far reflected broader social hierarchies, giving outsize attention to the experiences of a privileged minority. In a Day’s Work shows us what harassment looks like outside Hollywood and the Beltway. A journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting, Bernice Yeung has been on this beat for years, producing necessary, unglamorous exposés of the abuse suffered by low-wage laborers—mostly immigrants, mostly women—who are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence at work. Focusing on farmworkers, caregivers, maids, and janitors, Yeung’s investigation takes us into places designed to be invisible: the fields, high-rises, and private homes where women put in long hours harvesting and packaging produce, cleaning office complexes, and caring for children and the elderly.

What she finds is staggering. “From the meatpacking plants of Iowa to the lettuce fields of California to the apple orchards of Washington,” writes Yeung, “women expected to encounter sexual harassment, assault, and even rape at work.” One 2010 study conducted by the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that 40 percent of California farmworkers have been harassed, assaulted, or raped on the job. In a Day’s Work details case after case of such abuse. Yeung introduces us to Maricruz Ladino, who was assaulted by her boss at a lettuce farm in Salinas (when she attempted to rebuff his advances, he told her “to keep in mind that he had the power to decide how much longer I could work there”) and Georgina Hernández, an undocumented janitor who filed a lawsuit against her employer after being raped by her supervisor. As Yeung recounts how Hernández’s supervisor told her he would hurt her and her daughter, or even get them deported, if she didn’t acquiesce—“You need this job, don’t you?” he asked on the night he first raped her—we discover the thread that ties together these cases: When workers are on their own at the bottom of the social hierarchy, sexual violence is inevitable.

Even while describing experiences many publications might package as trauma porn, Yeung never lets larger structures out of sight: The story here is not about individual pathologies but the power differentials that enable abusers to act on their impulses and get away with it. The workers Yeung interviews are sexually vulnerable because they are economically vulnerable. There’s a reason she finds harassment and assault everywhere she goes: Our country’s extravagant levels of inequality all but guarantee it. By the book’s end, the lesson is clear. In the absence of grassroots support, legal protection, and legislative change, “the only rational thing to do” if you’re one of these women “is to say nothing.”

Two themes surface repeatedly throughout the book: fear and the power of speech. Fear keeps victims silent and keeps them at their jobs. “The biggest factor is fear,” Ladino, the Salinas farmworker, tells Yeung. “Fear that the threats of deportation and the threats of losing our jobs will be real.” Speaking out about harassment means overcoming fear.

The difficulty of reporting sexual harassment is a problem in any industry, but it is particularly acute for the most vulnerable workers. Poverty wages are an impediment in themselves to affording the time and energy it takes to file a lawsuit. Agricultural laborers often work alongside family members, so coming forward can mean the loss of income for an entire household. Janitors cleaning a high-rise may be hired by a “hazy web” of subcontractors, making it nearly impossible to raise an allegation. Most caregivers are excluded from basic labor protections, and some live with the families they work for. Who can you complain to when your employer is also your abuser?

Even when victims have abundant evidence, the odds are against them. In 2010, Juan Marín, a foreman for Evans Fruit, “one of the largest apple producers in the country,” was accused of assault by fourteen women who had worked under him. During Marín’s trial, the attorney for Evans Fruit hammered on the fact that some plaintiffs had petty criminal records, as evidence of their untrustworthiness. “We all felt pretty much that there was some level of harassment,” one juror told Yeung. Still, they found Marín not guilty on all counts.

As pundits opine about #MeToo in the pages of every major newspaper, Yeung does something better: Rather than give her own view on how to solve the scourge of sexual violence, she shows us what these workers themselves have been doing to address it. The heroes of In a Day’s Work are the organizers, lawyers, and advocates who lead trainings on sexual violence in Florida, encourage survivors to speak up in Chicago, and lobby for domestic workers’ bills of rights in California and New York. They provide the foundation for women like June Barrett, a home health aide in southern Florida, to come forward about being harassed. “I felt liberated,” Barrett said after speaking about her abuse at a Domestic Workers Assembly in 2016. As Yeung writes, “Saying it all aloud had excised that shame.”

This emphasis on the power of speech is familiar to anyone who has followed the past few months of reporting on sexual harassment. “Speaking out” has understandably been seen by many as the means to address the issue. But simply urging women to share their stories is not enough. The risks are too high for most undocumented, low-wage workers. And even if they do speak, who will listen? This is why Yeung’s framing is so critical: What helps the women in this book is not speech alone, cathartic as it may be. It is the organizers around them, often low-wage immigrant workers themselves, who ensure that survivors can speak without fear—and that others will hear them. Many of these survivors, in turn, go on to become organizers, and lead legislative campaigns, help others escape abuse, and bring lawsuits against exploitative bosses and employers. In a Day’s Work shows us how to stamp out sexual violence: We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; these women have been leading the way. All it takes is to join them.

Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin and a freelance writer based in New York City.