Back in 2016 I was walking through the Capitol gardens in Sacramento when I came across a tent with a sign saying ¡Ya basta! on it, and groups of women hanging out in the shade, wearing purple t-shirts. Always looking for something to write about, especially when it comes to abuse and/or mistreatment of immigrants, I went to talk to the organizers, and wrote about the movement later that week. What I was actually witnessing was the last few days of a hunger strike before Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that would help protect janitorial assistants from sexual harassment in the workplace. I then watched Rape on the Nightshift, a PBS documentary on exactly what the title describes, and was appalled by how bad sexual harassment and assault actually is in areas where the women are usually too afraid to come forward.
With In A Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers Bernice Yeung provides us with an excellent piece of investigative journalism into the depths of sexual harassment in the workplace in areas where mainly immigrants are hired (as farmworkers, domestic workers, or janitorial assistants). It’s in these exact areas that people are continuing to fight tooth and nail for better working conditions and pay, so it’s not difficult to imagine that with the added stressors of being an immigrant (undocumented or not), not having access to a proper support system or HR department at work, and not being able to read or write very well, or speak English, reporting abuse at work is not something that many women feel safe enough to do.
Yeung provides a background of federal labor laws, as well as the tireless work that people have done in states like New York and California to make sure that their industries and jobs fall under properly regulated labor laws. Yeung also provides extensive background into just how difficult it is for women to report harassment and assault in the workplace, the many hurdles they have to leap in order to actually be heard and believed and supported, as well as the sheer amount of cases that never make it past the first step. She also explains how many cases use Civil Rights legislation to prosecute the victims’ employers rather than go after the abuser himself, as there is a bigger possibility of actually winning the case (often with the latter the “he said she said” cases never make it anywhere).
All of the book is illustrated with heavily researched examples, success stories, stories that will make your ears bleed and your eyes pour, and stories that make you want to scream in anger. And also stories of solidarity and resistance that bring hope where there often isn’t any.
If you are interested in understanding how bad sexual harassment still is in this country, and in ways on where you can step in and make your voice heard for those women who feel like they don’t have a voice this is a must read. Yeung ends the book on a note of positivity, with examples of areas where companies are taking a proactive approach towards educating their workforce on harassment and how they can safely report concerns, as well as how unions are working on getting bills passed that will protect women in all areas of the workforce. However there is still so much more to be done, and I would love to see this book make it into as many hands as possible.
I have worked as a domestic worker and also as a janitorial assistant and know just how frightening it can be at times, being at the mercy of the families that hire you or the random cleaning companies who place you in different buildings every night. I was lucky to never have to fear my coworkers. I can’t even begin to imagine having to go into work every day wondering how I could hide from my supervisor’s advances. We keep hearing about Hollywood and Weinstein but we also need to talk about these women who remain in the shadows very loudly. No one should have to live through this. NO ONE.
More info on Bernice Yeung here. In A Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers will be published by The New Press on March 20th.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy!