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July 8, 2013 at 6:20 AM

Female farm workers and a modern harvest of shame

More than a half century ago, television viewers were transfixed by the reporting of Edward R. Murrow on the working conditions of migrant farm workers.

The journalism  of the famed CBS broadcaster opened a window on a world that was unknown to most Americans. One of the lines that echoed out of “Harvest of Shame,” was “We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them.”

The exploitation of those whose meager circumstances make them vulnerable to abuse was revisited by a PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Rape in the Fields.” Among the cases of sexual harassment featured in the news show involved Evans Fruit Co., based northwest of Yakima. The documentary looked at issues about sexual abuse in agriculture from California to Iowa.

This spring, a jury in federal court in Yakima rejected all the sexual harassment claims against Evans Fruit Co. The documentary focused on one infamous Evans’ supervisor in particular.

As the documentary points out, few of the cases end up in court, and virtually none of the cases across the country have led to criminal charges.

The documentary is a testimony to the courage of the women who have come forward. The “Frontline” documentary was disturbing because of the human trauma involved, and the personal recognition I had not heard a word about this topic before.

For lots of reasons, well explained in the report, this issue stays at a working-conditions, bureaucratic level. Lots of empowered agencies of the government and courts have looked the other way on criminal proceedings. One has to suspect that is where change would begin.

Watch Rape in the Fields on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

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