Last month, my colleague David Tracey discussed some of the benefits of President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. He explored how the executive action might help address the challenges confronted by undocumented farmworkers. As David explained, undocumented female farmworkers are vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and violence at the hands of male supervisors who count on their victims staying in the shadows due to their immigration status.
A recent class action lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) serves as a sad reminder that this problematic power dynamic is not limited to female farmworkers. Earlier this year, the EEOC took the extraordinary and unusual step of suing manufacturer and wholesaler FYC International, Inc. for sexual harassment. Although the EEOC pursues litigation in only one percent of the thousands of cases it reviews each year, it found the sexual harassment experienced by female employees so egregious – and the evidence so overwhelming – that it decided to litigate. Its complaint details how male managers and employees propositioned female workers and subjected them to unwanted touching, suggestive comments, and inappropriate questions.
The immigration status of the female workers played a critical role in the harassment, according to the complaint. The EEOC’s investigation revealed statements by the top male manager that he “loved” Latina workers because they couldn’t complain about sexual harassment for fear of being deported. The workers’ lawyer explained, “They were afraid of being fired.” Their fear and vulnerability emboldened other managers and employees to subject female workers to severe and pervasive harassment, according to the lawsuit.
Without immigration reform, undocumented female workers subjected to this treatment will continue to face an impossible choice: endure discrimination, harassment, and violence or risk deportation. Add this impossible choice to the list of reasons why, as President Obama explained, “our immigration system is broken.”
President Obama’s executive action is an important step toward fixing that system. Only through significant and bold immigration reform will we ensure that all workers receive the protection they deserve when they step out of the shadows to report unsafe and unjust practices in the workplace.
For more information about this suit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, see EEOC v. FYC International Inc., d/b/a FYC Apparel Group, Inc., Case No. 3:14-CV-01414.