Content warning: Sexual assault
“I screamed, “NO! NO! NO!” but you kept going and even told me, ‘No one can hear you.’”
These are the chilling words of Leticia Soto in Letter From An Immigrant Woman To Her Rapist.
After nine years of silence, Leticia bravely spoke out about the violent rape committed by her supervisor while she worked as a janitor on the night shift. Like so many other women in this industry, Leticia toiled alone at night cleaning office buildings. A single mother, she depended on her wages to support her family. An undocumented immigrant, she feared speaking out about the barrage of harassment she endured that culminated in sexual violence.
Among women who clean our offices, public buildings, and housing complexes, Leticia’s story is all too common. Workers in the janitorial industry are disproportionately women of color, and 70% are undocumented. While almost half of all janitors are women, they generally occupy the lowest-paid and least senior positions in the industry. Due to the work environment and isolation, women are particularly susceptible to sexual harassment and sexual violence. Many are monolingual speaking and lack resources about their legal rights or information about how to complain if there is a problem. Such conditions exacerbate the fear and threat of retaliation that many workers already feel due to their precarious economic situation.
To combat this pattern of harassment, violence, and silencing, in 2016 Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) convened the Ya Basta! Coalition (the Coalition) of legal organizations, unions, and groups combatting sexual assault. We are advancing the workplace safety, dignity, and working conditions of women in the janitorial industry and championing the growing grassroots organizing effort among immigrant women janitors.
Last year, the Coalition marked its first major policy victory – passage of Assembly Bill 1978 (Gonzalez-Fletcher), co-sponsored by ERA and SEIU United Service Workers West. This bill has the potential to impact more than 40,000 California janitors, security guards, and other property service workers by ensuring that state laws prohibiting sexual harassment and violence at work are properly enforced.
Through peer-to-peer organizing, the Coalition also aids in the training and empowerment of the next cohort of immigrant women workers (promotoras) to be anti-violence peer advocates and leaders on workplace sexual harassment and violence prevention in the janitorial industry. Women workers who have experienced sexual harassment and violence are mobilized to train their co-workers on their rights, and together they will continue to lead the fight to create safe and equitable workplaces.
Together, and in partnership with the brave women leading the fight against sexual violence within their own workplaces, we will work to ensure that stories like those of Leticia Soto, Maria Bojorquez, and too many other women in the janitorial and similar industries, are not repeated.
Enough is enough.
Our Ya Basta! coalition partners include SEIU United Service Workers West, Futures Without Violence, UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program, Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, Worksafe, and California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.