Rural Women Making Change in Puebla:
Sexual exploitation and harassment from the countryside to the maquila

by Evelyn Encalada Grez, RWMC Migration Project Researcher, May 2009

“No one should be forced to give up their dignity in order to feed their family” is the Bandana Project’s primary message. Founded by Monica Ramirez, at the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Atlanta, the Bandana Project aims to raise awareness on the sexual exploitation and harassment faced by farm worker women in the US. Women are vulnerable to sexual coercion on the part of employers, recruiters and male coworkers. Women without stable immigration status are particularly affected and often have to endure inhumane treatment at work. Women wear bandanas to protect their bodies from the hazards of farm work including unwanted sexual attention.

This project symbolically appropriates bandanas as canvasses for awareness and denunciations of women’s sexual exploitation at work. Bandanas are decorated with people’s aspirations for social justice and the dignity of women workers in the agricultural sector. In the project’s website, Monica explains that "through this project, we try to bring a sense of hope, confidence and the will to be brave. It is our wish that these women will see our encouragement as a sign that they no longer have to suffer in silence."

Sexual harassment is all too familiar for migrant farm women in Ontario. In a RWMC workshop in Leamington last summer, Eulalia, a Mexican agricultural worker in the Temporary Low Skilled Workers Program explained “…we will continue to be living those kinds of things with the employer, who is not focused on the work, in the work we produce, but instead if you have a good ass, if you have a pretty face or whatever you can offer him of your body so that he can be happy and that is not right.” After Eulalia’s powerful testimony more women started to open up about their experiences of harassment and discrimination at work. The conversations even continued after the workshop was over. It was then when Barbara, from the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, privately confessed that she saw no other resort than to quit her job at the greenhouse to avoid the constant sexual harassment on the part of a supervisor. However quitting means loosing the right to work for another employer in Canada and having to return to Mexico. There is much shame, anger and fear among migrant women who experience various forms of sexual harassment that according to the Ontario Human Rights Code does not have to be sexual in nature but that also includes gender discrimination.

Rural Women Making Change along with El Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador [1] and Justicia for Migrant Workers partnered to be part of the Bananda Project’s mission this year. In mid-April an educational and arts based workshop was held in Puebla for men and women workers in the maquila auto-parts industry. The workshop provided a space to talk about the situation of farm worker women, to share RWMC’s research on the topic and to expand on local context of the maquila sector in Puebla. Key objectives of the workshop included the following:

• To provide a space for community advocates and workers in the maquila car parts sector to educate themselves about sexual harassment and
exploitation faced by women at work

• To become familiarized with existing laws and their limits regarding the right to a secure workplace free from harassment of any kind

• To explore individual and collective strategies to confront this problem at work, in the home and in the community

• To express solidarity with women farm workers in the in the U.S. and Canada

daughter of a JC worker Over 20 workers in Puebla gathered on Sunday April 19th at El Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador to partake in a powerful workshop on sexual harassment. Ofelia talked about how her body would tremble and perspire when her supervisors at Johnson Controls, that produces car seats for the big auto-makers, would purposely watch over her every move as she performed intensive and dangerous work. She would feel how they would scan her entire body with their eyes. She expressed her discomfort on numerous occasions to only be dismissed. Ofelia, is one of defiant workers, who was organizing an independent workers led coalition against such abusive labour practices and the corrupt employer based union. She lost her work as a result. Conversely, Maru worked in another maquila where her male supervisor constantly sexually harassed and demeaned her. Without knowing where to turn and lacking support among her coworkers, she was forced to quit and has not been able to find work since. The women also talked about how unsafe and humiliated they felt on the way home from their night shifts. The company bus would drop them off in dangerous locations and men on the street would offer to pay them for sex. This generated conversation on the sex trafficking of women and girls that was prevalent in workers very communities and that sex workers are often coerced to engage in that work and as human beings they deserved to be treated with dignity and respect as well. The women also talked about the discrimination they felt as production line workers while women working in the offices of the maquilas were treated with respect. One of the women explained that when one of the male line workers whistled at a female secretary he was immediately fired but when worse things happen to women line workers on a daily basis it is permissible since perpetrators are among management ranks.

The workshop clarified sexual harassment and challenged the misconception that this behaviour is natural and inevitable between women and men. At the end of the workshop, one of the men shared, that he did not know how much this behaviour affected his female coworkers and that he was leaving with much more clarity on the issues and self-reflection. Participants, including workers’ young daughters, created beautiful and emotive bandanas. Everyone presented their creations before pinning them up on the centre’s walls and shared what the workshop had meant for them. Interestingly, the following Monday, the bandanas served as a powerful background to a press conference held by women workers who had been recently fired by an unscrupulous textile maquila operation. The local press and international human rights organizations asked what the bandanas represented and who were behind the project. These bandanas will soon be sent to the United States to be exhibited in various cities, thus marking the presence of RWMC in transnational solidarity networks throughout North America.

Ofelia This summer RWMC will be conducting Bandana Workshops in rural Ontario for migrant workers and community allies. In these workshops a new METRAC publication, “Migrant Farm Workers Experiencing Workplace Sexual Violence and Harassment” will make its debut. RWMC assisted in its revisions to reflect the context of migrant labour work in rural Ontario. RWMC was invited by METRAC to present its research and to orient service providers to support migrant women in situations of sexual harassment at the “Safe, Respectful & Inclusive Workplaces: Stakeholders & Strategies Conference” in London, Ontario. Anita Hill will be sharing her very public ordeal of sexual harassment during her work for the US Supreme Court.

Sexual exploitation and harassment at work have profound consequences for women, from their emotional well being to their right for dignified work. When women fight back and seek justice this offence often serves to punish them further. Anita Hill’s case highlights that sexual harassment happens in every setting and among women in diverse positions of power. Laws and international human rights instruments continue to fail victims of sexual harassment, from migrant to maquila workers, even US Supreme Court functionaries. However, migrant women as non-citizens are among the most vulnerable workers in cases of sexual harassment, violence and exploitation. Migrant women in Canada risk deportation as a reprisal for denouncing this treatment at work. Existing mechanisms are largely inaccessible. The Human Rights Tribunal, for instance, is limited in scope and time frame to address injustices that have immediate impacts on women’s lives.

The Bandana Project provides a powerful manner to bring these seldom discussed and often experienced issues into the public. Through the Bandana Project communities are able to come together to devise collective and personal strategies to secure safe workplaces for men and women irrespective of occupation, race and status. This year marked the Bandana Project’s first presence in Puebla and with the continued support from RWMC this summer will also be marking the project’s first launch in Canada. Through these initiatives Rural Women Making Change serves to inspire and unite women across borders.

More pictures from the workshop:
To bring the Bandana Project to your community contact:
To support RWMC’s Bandana Project workshops in Rural Ontario for migrant women and community allies contact: ev “at” yahoo “dot” ca

1. El Centro De Apoyo Al Trabajador is a Puebla based non-governmental organization that organizes and empowers maquila workers to fight for their labour and human rights. The centre represents workers in local labour tribunals, organizes international campaigns and lobbies the for the rights of workers to be paramount to national and international maquila production processes. The centre is a longstanding “Justicia for Migrant Workers” community partner.

I was beaten 12 years ago by my own partner. His father paid a few people because he did not want our
relationship because he was a doctor and I was nobody in life. But we continued to see each other in
secret. But his father found out and he ordered me to be beaten again. It was on a 13th of March when I
was knocked unconscious… by Teresa

-I am very thankful to El Centro de Apoyo Al Trabajador,
especially Blanca Velazquez Diaz who has supported my work and life in Mexico over the years. Siempre seras mi heroina e inspiracion....-