By TRACIE CONE
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Female farmworkers across the United States are commonly sexually harassed and assaulted, in part because their immigration status makes them fearful of calling police, according to a report being released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.
The survey by the international rights group mirrors two previous reports on the risks facing women and girls that had focused on California, where most of the nation's farmworkers reside.
"Our research confirms what farmworker advocates across the country believe: Sexual violence and sexual harassment experienced by farmworkers is common enough that some farmworker women see these abuses as an unavoidable condition of agricultural work," said the report.
An estimated 630,000 of the 3 million people who perform migrant and seasonal farm work are women. The federal government estimates that 60 percent of them are illegal immigrants.
"It's easiest for abusers to get away with sexual harassment where there's an imbalance of power, and the imbalance of power is particularly stark on farms," the report's author, Grace Meng, told The Associated Press.
The report calls on Congress to pass laws protecting immigrant farmworker women, and for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to repeal rules that encourage local police to report federal immigration violations.
The report describes incidences of rape, stalking, fondling and vulgar language used against women, who say they often don't report it because they are afraid of being fired or, worse, deported.
Meng interviewed 52 farmworkers and 110 attorneys, social service providers, law enforcement officials and members of the agriculture industry in New York, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and the state of Washington, but focused primarily on California because of its large farmworker population.
Women who work for labor contractors are more vulnerable than those who work directly for a farmer, the report said.
"The goal of our report was to show that this was a national problem. And to show the governmental barriers that exist to reporting these crimes and abuses. And to demonstrate it's a human rights problem," Meng said.
While previous studies have said that up to 80 percent of women who work in the fields have been harassed or assaulted, a counselor in the heart of California's agriculture region says her experience puts it at closer to half. She said the problem exists in all businesses where immigrant women may lack English language skills and trust in law enforcement, but that farms are the biggest employers so the abuses occur more frequently there.
Incidences are rarely reported to authorities, said Amparo Yebra of the nonprofit Westside Family Preservation Services Network in Huron, Calif.
"We have had a lot of complaints," said Yebra. "Most of the people are farmworkers, but if they get the opportunity to get out of the fields to work in a store, some of the owners take advantage of those people also."
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal in California, and Bryan Little of the California Farm Bureau Federation says the legislature identified it as a universal problem. The Farm Bureau's affiliate group, Farm Employers Labor Service, provides sexual harassment prevention and training, which employers are required to provide every other year to anyone who works in a supervisory capacity.
"Agriculture is a big industry in California, but it seems unlikely that they passed this law just for ag," Little said. "They must have responded to something bigger going on in the workplace."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.