A federal jury has awarded a total of $17 million to five women who were fired from a produce packing company in Florida after their bosses raped and sexually harassed them on the job, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced Thursday.
According to the EEOC, the five women were repeatedly raped, groped and sexually harassed by their former bosses at Moreno Farms in Felda, Florida, and then fired for resisting their sexual advances. Sandra Lopez, a migrant worker from Chiapas, Mexico, reported that Omar Moreno, the owner of the farm, dragged her away from the factory into his trailer one day and raped her for half an hour. Two more women said Moreno or his brother, Oscar, raped them, and another two women said the men attempted to rape them and regularly made sexual comments toward them.
The EEOC filed suit against Moreno Farms in August of 2014, and a federal jury awarded the women a hefty sum on Thursday: $2,425,000 in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages. The Moreno brothers closed the plant when the federal government zeroed in on them, The Miami Times reported, and they have not responded to a legal summons. The men reportedly have a history of preying on undocumented workers.
“The jury’s verdict today should serve as a clear message to the agricultural industry that the law will not tolerate subjecting female farm workers to sexual harassment and that there are severe consequences when a sex-based hostile work environment is permitted to exist,” said Robert E. Weisberg, regional attorney for EEOC’s Miami District Office.
The Miami New Times describes workplace rape as “an insidious problem for the tens of thousands of female migrant workers who are the backbone of Florida’s $100 billion agriculture industry.” Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to these crimes because many are undocumented, isolated from family members and unfamiliar with local laws, which means that most of the assaults go unreported. And even when the crimes are reported, the abuses often continue. In the Moreno Farms case, three of the victims went to local sheriffs after being raped but were “quickly dismissed” and no criminal charges were ever filed.
“Having long been silenced by shame and fear, this trial offered these five women the opportunity to give voice publicly to their experiences and their desire for justice,” said Beatriz André, EEOC’s lead attorney in the discrimination case.
EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said the Moreno Farms case is the latest in a series of court victories for the agency for these types of cases, and added that the EEOC has prioritized “combating employment discrimination on behalf of farmworkers.”
According to a 2014 study, more than 30% of migrant laborers in the U.S. are victims of labor trafficking — or recruiting a person for labor through force, fraud, or coercion for involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or even slavery — and 55% are victims of other labor abuses.