Legal Victory for Latino Immigrant Workers Group Highlights Another Ongoing Crisis in the Country: Sexual Harassment

Legal Victory for Latino Immigrant Workers BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy via propublica.com

Talking about the vulnerability of immigrant communities in the United States is like preaching to the choir. From persecution and stigmatization by government agencies to the incidence of the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrants and people of color in the country are the default scapegoat.

And while activist organizations have brought to light the deep layers of violence and risk that members of these communities must go through to survive, there remain circumstances unknown to many, until independent media research exposes them, once again challenging our ability to wonder.

Such is the case with a recent report by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces “investigative journalism with moral force,” and which last week published the resolution of a shocking sexual harassment case in Illinois.

State Attorney General Kwame Raoul announced the settlement in a sexual harassment and workplace retaliation case involving temporary immigrant workers at a beauty supply factory in the southwest suburbs.

The case involved allegations against Voyant Beauty, formerly known as Vee Pak LLC, which for years had been in the eye of the investigative agency because of information from a source describing the company’s employment profile as “good looking young ladies with big tits.”

Reporter Melissa Sanchez describes how Voyant’s temporary workers began organizing, in collaboration with the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, to denounce sexual harassment at the company, collect signatures, and file legal complaints against the company’s male workers and supervisors.

The women described how they had “endured Voyant Beauty employees touching us in our private parts, making obscene comments and gestures, and creating a hostile work environment which is toxic and extraordinarily traumatic.”

Isaura Martinez, a former temp worker who is now an organizer with the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, said she’d never seen this level of collective action among temp workers fighting sexual harassment in the decades she’s been working in the industry.

“It was stunning to witness such a large group of workers get together and maintain their outrage and courage,” she said. “Sexual harassment is so common in the temp industry … and the workers feel powerless. They are easily intimidated and remain silent for fear of retaliation, fear of losing their jobs, fear that nobody will listen or believe them.”

The case has gone unnoticed nationally because it was covered mostly by Spanish-language media. That is why both Sanchez and ProPública have decided to bring out in both languages the details of the labor circumstances to which hundreds of temporary immigrant workers in the country are exposed.

To make matters worse, and once the women had organized and demonstrated outside the factory, some told the media that the staffing agency they worked for, Alternative Staffing Inc. stopped calling them back to work or reduced their hours. Several would eventually file complaints about job retaliation and sexual harassment with various federal and state agencies. Facing multiple investigations, the company eventually allowed workers to return, according to the attorney general’s office.

According to Sanchez, not only were the women forced to endure sexual harassment at work, but once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Chicago, their working conditions did not protect them from infection, and many had to choose between getting sick at work or not being able to support their families.

But finally, the women got some justice.

Last Monday, Raoul’s office filed a lawsuit against the company over the allegations and the consent decree that resolves them.

“A workplace culture that subjects female employees to harassment and penalizes them for reporting such actions is reprehensible – and illegal,” Raoul said in a statement. “The workers at this facility had the courage to stand up against this terrible treatment. This consent decree will ensure Voyant’s unacceptable treatment of female employees will not stand any longer.”

The consent decree requires sexual harassment training for its employees and an independent monitor’s appointment to protect workers from further retaliation and sexual harassment. Voyant has agreed to pay $85,000 in penalties to cover the cost of monitoring.

With information from ProPublica.