Bernice Yeung exposes the sexual harassment and rape endemic to isolated fields, offices, and homes. Despite poverty, undocumented status, and economic desperation, women farmworkers, janitors, and domestic workers have mustered the courage to overcome shame and speak out against abuse. Yeung chronicles their personal journeys. Nonetheless, it is easy to come away from this powerful book convinced that law is part of the problem rather than the solution.
In a Day’s Work exposes the demeaning of immigrant women of color through judicial delay and juror disbelief, which too often leads to courtroom defeat. The individual-rights approach to gender violence in the workplace requires a harmed woman turning into a plaintiff and seeking justice in a forum stacked against her. If she convinces an Equal Opportunity officer or a human rights attorney to take up her case, she faces a defense lawyer out to assassinate her character and besmirch her veracity. Not only do legal rules presume the perpetrator’s innocence unless he is proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt but patriarchy remains strong, as the old shibboleths — that virtuous women will fight rape to the death and that men’s lives shouldn’t be ruined for acting like men — persist. At best, an employer will settle out of court and formulate a new code of conduct for supervisors and subcontractors. Any of us who have sat through sexual harassment training know how inadequate such courses are when one is faced with the realities of workplace violence.
The question becomes, why do organizations of workers, doubly vulnerable due to their citizenship status and invisibility, still campaign for legal protections? Why have the National Domestic Workers Alliance and various state affiliates lobbied for a “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights,” even with weak enforcement mechanisms? Why did their counterparts worldwide seek a convention on “Decent Work for Domestic Workers,” adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2011, with measures against workplace violence and sexual assault? And why does the International Domestic Worker Federation and the International Confederation of Trade Unions today push the ILO for a standard-setting convention on “Violence and Harassment against Women and Men in the World of Work” for passage next year at the International Labour Conference? Laws create norms and aspirations for behavior by the state as well as employers and individual men. Most importantly, they are good for organizing and the empowerment of workers necessary for transforming practices.
Illustrating the potential benefits of such campaigns, Yeung offers the trajectory of Georgina Hernández, a victim when we first meet her, who becomes one of the hunger strikers who in 2016 demanded that California Governor Jerry Brown sign the “Property Service Workers Protection Act.” Union janitors won this fight, which requires companies that employ janitors to register with state authorities, allow inspections of their subcontracting chains, and provide sexual harassment training. This initiative came from the membership of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Workers West, which voted to make sexual violence an issue for collective bargaining.
Noted for social movement unionism, SEIU understood the power of grassroots trust, especially in intimate matters. Yeung charts the building of networks that outsiders too often miss. Working with nongovernemental organizations, including the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, SEIU approached the East Los Angeles Women’s Center, an organization esteemed within Spanish-speaking Southern California. The Women’s Center created a peer promotora program, modeled on Mexican lay public health educators, to enhance knowledge, raise consciousness, and facilitate action.
Through their hunger strike, Hernández and the other promotoras reclaimed their bodies. Their final healing circle collectively celebrated survival by reading letters to attackers and releasing doves of peace.
Eliminating sexual violence from the workplace needs cadres of workers to defend their coworkers and workers forcing employers to maintain zero tolerance as a condition of work—another reason to support unions in this era of right-wing assault abetted by the Supreme Court. Workers acting alone lack power, but together they can bring greater justice, even individual redress, than can most sexual harassment trials. Their challenge to workplace practices breathes new meaning into the old slogan “the personal is the political.”
Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and distinguished professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes on the home as a workplace. She is finishing the book “Making the Woman Worker: Precarious Labor and the Fight for Global Standards, 1919-2019” (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). She works in solidarity with home care, domestic, and other home-based workers. She tweets at @eileen_boris. This essay was originally published by Signs, as part of a Short Takes forum on In a Day’s Work, which also includes essays by Sarah Jones, Collier Meyerson, and Katherine Turk. The full forum is available on the Signs website.