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Women workers fight back against sexual harassment and assault

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ROC United advocates for better pay for restaurant workers. The minimum for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour. Photo by Sekou Siby, ROC United.

Over a month’s worth of post-election analyses have undoubtedly shined a light on the concerns of the working class, but they have given little visibility to a massive and marginalized group within their ranks: the millions of women who are restaurant workers, domestic workers, and hospitality workers, a majority of whom are women of color, and many of whom are immigrants. Not only are these workers paid far below minimum wage, but for many, their livelihoods are tethered to the persistent threat of sexual predation. And without labor laws on the state and federal levels to protect them, they are wholly vulnerable to their employers and their customers.

Last month, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), an organization committed to improving wages and working conditions for restaurant workers, held an Ending Sexual Violence in the Workplace summit in New York City. Attendees heard from Mirna Prieto as her voice trembled through her account of one of many instances of sexual harassment she had faced on the job in her 15 years as a restaurant worker. Prieto was serving at a VIP party when a guest called her over to his table. “Here’s $20 for all your great work,” he said, before asking her if she was married. In a more hushed voice, he continued, “I can offer you more money, but only if you take care of me.” The man was a friend of Prieto’s boss. The exchange left her feeling afraid. As a single parent, she couldn’t afford to risk reporting the guest to her boss, only to have him side with his friend. “It’s not easy to be treated like an object worth $20,” she said. “We are human beings worth more than a $20 bill.” Prieto’s story was one of many accounts of the pervasive and routine sexual harassment to which restaurant workers are subjected, from sexual remarks to groping and, in some cases, rape.

Several union-led initiatives and grassroots campaigns are fighting to end the sexual harassment and violence these vulnerable women regularly experience. ROC United released a study in 2014 on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. Soon after, it launched the One Fair Wage campaign, which pushes states to eliminate the two-tiered wage system and adopt the regular federal minimum wage for all, tipped or untipped. The federal “tipped minimum wage,” or sub-minimum wage, has been stalled at a paltry $2.13 an hour for 25 years. Workers must rely almost solely on tips for their income, leaving them vulnerable to the people they serve in more ways than one. In an industry with a rate of sexual harassment five times that of any other industry, raising the tipped minimum wage, ROC United argues, protects female employees who are uniquely victimized by the two-tiered system. The seven states that have established One Fair Wage—California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Minnesota, and Alaska—have cut that rate nearly in half, according to ROC United co-founder and co-director Saru Jayaraman, in large part because workers know that refusing to entertain a customer’s advances won’t jeopardize their income.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is pursuing similar state legislation for homecare workers. Employed in private homes, domestic workers operate in an isolated environment that lacks any accountability or formalized system of enforcement of rights. In an industry where 95 percent of workers are women, 46 percent are immigrants, and 23 percent are paid below the state minimum wage, domestic workers are left particularly vulnerable to their employers. Often impeded by language barriers, starved of community contact, and uninformed of what resources and legal protections are available to them, domestic workers are disturbingly susceptible to physical and sexual assault and forced servitude. Employers often hold their immigration status for ransom, thereby suffocating any ability for these women to pursue legal recourse. That’s why the Alliance’s centerpiece initiative pushes for each state to codify a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In addition to ensuring that domestic workers receive the state minimum wage, the legislation enacts protections against egregious human rights violations such as sexual abuse and trafficking.

Hotel room attendants, who often work alone from room to room, are susceptible to indecent exposure, harassment, and sexual assault by guests. In an interview with Seattle’s KING5 News, room attendant Ida Calderon recounted one incident when a guest exposed himself as she entered the room. She wondered, “Am I going to make it back out of this room?” Progress is also starting to be made for these workers, albeit on a smaller scale. On November 8, Seattle voted for Initiative 124 (titled “Seattle Protects Women”), a measure written by Unite Here Local 8, the hospitality workers’ union. The new law protects workers from sexual assault, sexual harassment, and injury. It requires hotels to track guests accused of harassment and even provide room attendants with panic buttons. Though this is only one victory in one city, Initiative 124 may provide a model for other cities, and even states, to follow in the future. And where legislation falls short, Unite Here is committed to holding hotels accountable, organizing for its members and continuing to propose legislation that will protect them.

Millions of women in the U.S., many immigrants and mostly women of color, remain shackled to exploitative work environments simply to provide for their families. Though advocacy groups and unions have made great strides to improve the status quo, employers and state and federal governments must safeguard these women’s security. Now is the time to acknowledge and include these women’s experiences in our discourse on the myriad ways that sexual assault taints our society, and in our understanding of the concerns of working-class people. As Ms. Foundation president and CEO Teresa Younger stated in her remarks at the ROC United summit, “Violence against women in any workplace compromises women in every workplace.”

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