Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sexual Harassment and Immigration: One Victory Sheds Light on a Widespread Problem

As it often does, the sexual harassment that Martha Nyakim Gatkuoth faced when she went into work each day started with a few lewd comments that she thought she could ignore, and slowly escalated to the point where she was filled with dread each time she entered Tavern on the Green, the posh NYC restaurant where she was a hostess. As the 25-year-old refugee from Ethiopia explained to The New York Times:
....the trouble began slowly, with a few comments, but then became a torrent of vulgar remarks and touching.“I was asked to perform sexual favors in great detail by this manager,” she said. “And when I refused, I was told that I was not going to get the schedule I wanted. It resulted in my paycheck being cut.”

...“Sometimes there’d be a big group of people, and the manager would make a comment about your private parts and get a laugh out of everybody.”

“Most of the time it was in private; I’d be by myself,” she said. “He’d just come and grab my butt and slap it... He’d make statements like, ‘Why do you think so and so gets this schedule?’ I’d wonder whether they were threatened the same way I was threatened.”

It turns out that many of the women who worked at Tavern on the Green were threatened and sexually harassed the same ways she was. Gatkuoth (pictured) "filed a criminal complaint against the restaurant’s director of operations" and, when other female employees spoke up about the hostile environment at the restaurant, she "...also became the lead complainant in the commission’s federal discrimination lawsuit, in which Tavern on the Green agreed to a $2.2 million settlement last month."

Martha Nyakim Gatkuoth's case sheds some light on the nightmarish experiences that many foreign-born women face when they come to the United States to work. While sexual harassment can be leveled at anyone, non-citizens are often targeted due to the perception that they have fewer recourses to address complaints. As Diana Vellos reports in her article Immigrant Latina Domestic Workers and Sexual Harassment:
Undocumented Latina domestic workers endure low wages and hostile working environments. Employers commonly threaten to deport undocumented domestic workers if they refuse to do more work, reject sexual advances, or attempt to return home. These workers are vulnerable to employer exploitation.
This vulnerability to exploitation also extends to immigrants who are in the country legally, but whose work visas depend on their keeping their jobs with employers who sponsor them. Even refugees, like Gatkuoth, often lack the financial and familial support networks and the strong understanding of the legal system that would allow them to more easily bring charges against their harassers. Those seeking citizenship can also be made vulnerable to abuse by the very people whose job it is to guide them through the immigration process, as in the case of Isaac R. Baichu, the immigration agent who was demanding sex from women before he would process their green card applications.

Yet, Martha Nyakim Gatkuoth's lawsuit offers hope, for one woman's courage to speak up can help others to do so as well. Stories like hers also raise awareness, showing companies that they might not be able to harass foreign-born women with impunity in the future, and prompting individual citizens to be more conscious of the problems faced by others, problems from which we are often shielded.

If anyone is curious about what constitutes sexual harassment and what immigrants can do to legally defend themselves, this fact sheet provides a useful summary [PDF].

On a slightly unrelated note, I found it a bit creepy that the NYT article on Martha Nyakim Gatkuoth began with this line, "Martha Nyakim Gatkuoth is a refugee from Ethiopia, 6 feet tall and runway-model slim." Really, do we have to objectify her to make people care about her problems?

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