Protecting the night shift

Immigrant women among the first graduating class of California union janitors trained to guard against sexual misconduct in their profession

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the June 27, 2019 issue.

“Believe in the power of immigrant women.” That was the message of a graduation ceremony held Monday morning on the steps of the state Capitol. The words were printed on a backdrop behind a class of nearly 100 union janitors who are now trained to recognize, respond to and help prevent sexual harassment and assault in the industry.

It was largely immigrant women who made up the first graduating class of Ya Basta Center’s promotora training program.

A trio of live musicians opened the ceremony and graduates, all members of SEIU United Service Workers West, posed for photographs. The promotoras, or specialized community educators and liaisons, learned how to protect fellow janitors’ legal rights, trauma-informed approaches and peer-education methods through the program offered by Ya Basta, which translates to “enough is enough.”

The need for such a program spotlighted a dark reality: that women employed as janitors are at risk of sexual harassment, assault and rape on the job. That risk tends to be greater for undocumented immigrants, who have recounted stories of their attackers threatening retaliation if they spoke up.

“Each of you who has faced sexual harassment, sexual intimidation and sexual violence understand well that it’s an imbalance of power that emboldens sexual predators,” said California First Partner Jennifer Seibel Newsom, a documentarian. “[The] culture of silence will be no more in this industry.”

The scene seemed to reflect the demand for change sparked by the widespread Me Too and Time’s Up hashtags, which called for an end to sexual misconduct in Hollywood, state politics and other workplaces. However, this conversation about the victimization of female janitors began earlier.

In June 2015, the PBS series Frontline covered this largely hidden issue in a one-hour documentary, Rape on the Night Shift. A 2016 report from the UC Berkeley Labor Center said that, while data on sexual harassment and assault in these workplaces was limited, “those familiar with the industry state that stories of harassment, often by supervisors, are very common.”

Part of a 2016 California law required employers to establish in-person sexual harassment and assault trainings every two years in the janitorial industry, beginning in 2019. That came after janitors, including some sexual assault survivors, staged a week-long hunger strike outside the Capitol in support of the bill.

The promotoras are the first generation of peer educators qualified to conduct these trainings.