Ever since The New York Times and the New Yorker released a series of reports in October of 2017, alleging that the producer Harvey Weinstein had sexually abused, harassed, and terrorized what would eventually amount to over 80 individuals — mostly actresses and models — women across all industries started coming forward with their own experiences of sexual violence, rallying under the hashtag #MeToo, a movement first started by Tarana Burke.
Any movement set on tackling workplace harassment, as many were quick to note, can only be successful in its aims if it expands beyond the specific concerns raised by the mostly-white, mostly-upper class women who initially — and bravely — came forward with their Weinstein stories, then their Charlie Rose stories, then their Matt Lauer stories, and so on. For women in low-wage industries, which are already rife with exploitative practices, the #MeToo movement is particularly crucial.
Speaking up is extremely risky for any woman who’s been assaulted or harassed, but the stakes are far higher for those in low-wage industries — many of whom are women of color — who don’t have the financial freedom to leave abusive workplaces, who are far less likely to have the resources for legal aid, or who may be afraid to come forward because of their immigration status. Still, women in these industries have been tirelessly organizing for better working conditions for decades; now, they’re using the sustained spotlight of #MeToo to continue speaking out about the harassment they’ve endured and pushing for change.
How have things changed for women in low-wage industries since the advent of this incendiary national discourse about sexual harassment and assault? June Barrett, a home care worker, organizer, and leader with the We Dream in Black program of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Mily Treviño-Sauceda, vice president and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, who is often credited as one of the founders of the farmworker women’s movement in the US, spoke on the phone last month to discuss the history and future of organizing against workplace harassment in domestic and agricultural work, among other industries.
(The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
June Barrett: First, I want to ask how you got involved with organizing and why.
Mily Treviño-Sauceda: I come from a migrant farmworker family. I did the work myself. I was eight years old when I started working. It wasn’t just myself. It was with my whole family. I saw many families who were going through the same thing: exploitation, wage theft, working in fields where you were being sprayed by chemicals. I saw many women, pregnant women, working in the field, who were discriminated against.
When [my family and I moved] to California [when I was a teenager], we got to understand, because of the movement that already existed with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, that by organizing and coming together as workers, we could put pressure and get the respect we deserve… My father was hired as an organizer, but he didn’t know how to read or write. And he’d ask me to help. And I wanted to learn. Because of my involvement organizing in the fields, I was being sexually harassed. I couldn’t talk about it for taboos, for threats… I couldn’t sleep, I was afraid. All the things we go through when we’re harassed. I felt alone. I didn’t know who to talk to.
"The more women we organized, the more came. From that point on, we have been unstoppable."
Ten years later, we did a needs assessment of farmworker women… And that opened my eyes to the kind of activism I wanted to do… We’d ask the women, What do you think needed to be done or what needs to change? I learned from them. And they wanted to learn, too. After that, I started to [hold] meetings for farmworker women to get together. People said, “They won’t do that, they have their own families and children.” At that first meeting, I saw two other women I had interviewed come. I knew that was the answer. They wanted to learn. They wanted to decide. They wanted to plan. The more women we organized, the more came.
From that point on, we have been unstoppable. We originally called the group Mexican Women. My life changed after that. I had already been organizing for 10 years at that point. That was the first “a-ha” moment.
June: That was awesome, Mily!
Mily: I want to hear from you! Everyone’s experiences are valid. I want to hear your story!
June: My story started many years ago. I’m Jamaican. I arrived here in the United State in 2001. I was undocumented for several years. My first job was as a nanny in New Jersey. Because I was undocumented, my boss let me go when he found out. My sister was also undocumented, living in Miami. She called me and said, “Why don’t you come down here?” Miami was don’t ask don’t tell then. That’s how I was pushed into caregiving. I took a 20-hour ride on the Greyhound to Miami.
At that first job, the women started screaming when she saw me, “Oh my god, oh my god, they sent me an n-word.” My second job, I faced wage theft, and it got bad with discrimination and racial slurs. The next job I got would pay $1 more — so $11 per hour, not $10. But what followed was weeks of aggressive, sexual, horrible stuff. It was physical and verbal. There was no penetration, but there was unwanted touching and kissing. I had no safety net. I didn’t trust the home care agency, because if I’d complain, they would let me go. And it wasn’t easy to find a new job.
At the time, I didn’t know about the Miami Workers Center. I didn’t see the power of organizing until a young man by the name of Trayvon Martin was murdered. I was devastated. I didn't know what to do. Then a friend said to me, “Why don’t you turn your heartbreak into activism?”
"I’m going to keep fighting until we are all protected. My farmworker sisters. Janitors, truck drivers. All vulnerable women."
When I got involved with the Miami Workers Center, they weren’t yet organizing home care workers. They didn’t call me for a long time. But when they did, it was one of the best calls I ever had in my life. At the time, I was hearing the stories of other women. And on July 23, 2016, I told my story of sexual harassment for the first time at South Florida first Domestic Workers Assembly. In front of commissioners, state representatives, senators, and domestic workers. I went from telling only one person what happened to me to telling 500 people.
After I told it, I felt a surge of power. When I got back to work that Sunday, I called my boss and her father, who I was providing care for. I said, “This is a movement I want to be a part of. I don’t know where it is going to take me. You can fire me now, but give two weeks’ notice.” I sat them down and told them the stories I had heard at the Assembly — stories of wage theft and physical sexual harassment domestic workers were facing. My client was in shock. He got up immediately and wrote a check to donate to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Since then, this movement has taken me across the United States, across the Atlantic. I still get asked why I tell my story over and over again: Because this is giving other women the power to say, “#MeToo. I have also experienced sexual harassment.”
Many of us are still afraid. We’re afraid of our employers coming after us. Afraid of not being believed. That’s why we need to have something to reassure women that we have their backs. We need resources in place and a strong safety net. We need laws in place that actually protect all of us. I’m going to keep fighting until we are all protected. My farmworker sisters. Janitors, truck drivers. All vulnerable women.
Mily: The way you said you’re fighting so others don’t get hurt — that’s what did it for me. I was willing to start talking when I started hearing from other women, when I started learning myself that there were many women in the workplace who had been harassed… I didn’t know that other women were being treated the same way or worse. I found out there was a woman who was raped in those same companies I was working. It wasn’t fair. Neither for me nor for her. I knew if it was happening to us, it was happening to more women.
The majority of the women who we work with say they want to get involved to help others. At the beginning, it was tough to talk about these issues directly. It’s not just farmworkers. It was women in convenience stores, women hotel workers. Even men. They’d come to us for support. We talked about issues of wage theft and discrimination first.
"You can be 60 years old and still be called a 'girl.' That’s why sexual harassment is so rampant. Because people have no respect."
June: Right after the Golden Globes, at the Miami Workers Center, we hosted a women’s circle, and women who had never spoken out were sharing their issues of sexual harassment. There has been an impact. More people know about NDWA. More domestic workers are coming forward and learning about these organizations. I’ve even gotten some skeptics to join.
I think women know that they have this safety net. More are becoming bold, but many are still reserved and are waiting for bigger reassurance. And the #MeToo movement has given us the courage to speak up and speak out.
The activists who were on the red carpet, and Oprah talking about her mother as a domestic worker, that was amazing. I had this conversation in the taxi to the airport. [The driver] said, “Well, why can’t women come forward? And why would a client do this?” I had to remind him of the history of domestic work and its roots in slavery. People place no value on the work. You can be 60 years old and still be called a “girl.” That’s why sexual harassment is so rampant. Because people have no respect.
Even myself, I have gotten bolder with telling my story over and over again, hoping that other domestic workers can come forward and feel more powerful and find more courage. I believe that’s going to happen.
Mily: Everything that you’re saying with the #MeToo movement resonated. The #MeToo movement already existed. Many of us, many groups throughout the US, had already been involved in supporting each other.
It was the right time last year, when women were speaking out more. More women were speaking out against one person, one powerful person. That just opened up a can of worms… Mónica Ramirez, our president at Aliana de Campesinas, sat down and said, “I wonder if us writing a letter to the entertainment industry will let them know that we support them, and that women in other industries have gone through this.” TIME magazine publicized that open letter.
As women, we organize very differently. I know that TIME’S UP is not just happening here in the US. It’s global. Mónica and I and many of our members have been interviewed across the country and across Europe and across other continents. And we are sharing our stories of what’s happening in other places. We created a big ripple effect. When we started, it was small ripples that helped break ground.
Now, in 2018, I believe that we are all part of it. We need to learn and hear from each other so we can start changing this ugly culture where women can be disposed of. We need to make sure we’re seen as beautiful human beings. We deserve healthy experiences just like everyone else.