Sexual harassment and sexual violence occur in the workplace at an alarming rate, and at some work sites, the level of isolation and barriers to reporting are extreme, creating a perfect environment for exploitation and abuse. The 2015 documentary by the Center for Investigative Reporting and its partners, “Rape on the Night Shift,” highlighted the problem: women janitors working in isolated sites experience high rates of sexual harassment and violence on the job. Working alone at night, cleaning empty buildings for low pay, women in the janitorial industry are especially vulnerable to experiencing exploitation, assault, and abuse.
And while data on the incidence of violence in the industry is incomplete, we know that what has been reported is just the tip of the iceberg.
We are proud to work with a coalition of anti-violence advocates, union leaders, worker advocates and women worker leaders—the Ya Basta! Coalition—to advance the workplace safety and dignity of women and other workers vulnerable to experiencing sexual violence and harassment in the janitorial industry, and improve conditions for all workers. On August 9, our coalition presented our work at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) Statewide Conference, “Transformative Conversations,” alongside a group of women worker leaders, called promotoras. The conference provided us with the opportunity and platform to present our call to action and to share some of the lessons learned in collaborating to empower workers and support peer leaders in the workplace. We’re asking anti-violence advocates, leaders in the labor movement, and worker rights advocates to collaborate to prevent and end sexual violence perpetrated against low-wage workers in their communities.
This Labor Day, we honor the achievements of the promotoras and our coalition partners in the labor and worker rights movement. Several years ago, when leaders at SEIU-USWW and Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund recognized the urgent need to address sexual harassment and violence in the janitorial industry, they reached out to CALCASA and local anti-violence advocates from the East Los Angeles Women’s Center for help. The group further connected with legal advocates in worker rights and anti-violence fields: Futures Without Violence, Equal Rights Advocates, Worksafe, and the UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program. Together, these groups collaborated to support survivors and build worker power, creating spaces through the promotora program that centered and lifted up survivor voices.
We know that cross-sector collaborations that build worker power, incorporate survivor voices, advance trauma-informed practices, and leverage the expertise of advocates from different fields, creates change. In 2016, 18 brave women janitor-worker leaders fasted on the steps of the California State Capitol to press Governor Brown to sign the Property Service Workers Protection Act (AB 1978), co-sponsored by SEIU-USWW and Equal Rights Advocates. The new law increases protections against sexual violence in the janitorial industry, making everyone safer at work.
And while we celebrate these achievements, our coalition recognizes there is still work to do. Together, we are committed to raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. We are building industry-specific responses alongside worker leaders. And we are developing and practicing a model for collaboration and worker-community engagement that we hope impacts other industries and regions. Because no worker should have to choose between her personal safety and feeding her family.
Elena Dineen, Staff Attorney for Programs
Futures Without Violence
Emily Austin, Director of Advocacy
Ya Basta! Coalition members include SEIU-USWW, CALCASA, Equal Rights Advocates, Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program, Worksafe, and Futures Without Violence.