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Immigrant Women Sweep out Sexual Violence at their Jobs

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Real life Wonder Women have been marching in front of the California state capitol, walking through the halls, educating Senators, and demanding that they be protected from sexual abuse at work. On September 11, their four-year journey reached an important step in their mission to prevent sexual assault and harassment against the primarily immigrant women who work as janitors at night. AB 547 – the Janitor Survivor Empowerment Act passed the Senate Floor, without any opposition, and now heads to Governor Newsom’s desk for his signature. AB 547 greatly expands the impact of peer educators, also known as Promotoras, and makes peer-to-peer trainings on workplace sexual violence available to every janitor in California. 

Maribel Cabrera told Univision, “Almost everything is against us because we are women, we are Latinas, because we are janitors. We don’t have credibility, we are invisible, but today we have achieved something, they look at us and know we exist.”

Women who clean buildings at night are often alone and isolated and experience high rates of sexual harassment and violence. The 2015 documentary by the Center for Investigative Reporting and its partners, “Rape on the Night Shift,” exposed the sexual abuse of immigrant women in the janitorial industry. A coalition of women worker leaders, union leaders, worker advocates and anti-violence advocates—the Ya Basta! Coalition—sought to stand up, speak out, and end sexual violence perpetrated against low-wage workers. It was a movement that started before #metoo went viral, and this week, the group of janitors and supporters achieved their own historic moment for immigrant women of color.

Now the peer educators, also known as Promotoras, are beginning to provide peer trainings through the recently opened Ya Basta Center. Through a proven peer-to-peer prevention model, accredited, expert peer-to-peer “Promotoras” trainers will help janitors take hold of their power and change the conditions and cultures that lead to unsafe environments. Janitors learn self-empowerment, body agency, and their legal rights. The trauma-informed, culturally aware model of training represents the future of workplace safety, dignity and respect.  

The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), would require employers to use qualified organizations to provide required training. The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement would have to develop and maintain a list of these qualified organizations (as well as peer trainers within these organizations). (See AB-547 Janitorial workers: sexual violence and harassment prevention training. (2019-2020). “We’ve never had a law that approaches sexual harassment and assault in this way,” said the bill’s author. 

AB547 passes California State Senate / Video by Stephen Boardman on YouTube

In anticipation of the bill’s passage, more than one-hundred Promotoras were trained in coordination with the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault in July. The graduation ceremony was presided over by California First Partner Jennifer Seibel Newsom and several state legislators including Speaker Anthony Rendon and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.   

The bill was supported by SEIU United Service Workers West (USWW), which represents more than 45,000 janitors, security officers, airport service workers, and other property service workers across California.

Promotora Trainer and USWW Member Annabella Aguirre commented,

Whether our cry is #YaBasta, or #MeToo, every woman deserves a workplace free from fear. We are proud that the California Senate agreed with us that peers who have faced the fear and exploitation of the janitorial industry are best positioned to empower a workforce of women and immigrants to fight back against sexual violence. We look forward to working with Governor Newsom to advance this important legislation and show the nation standing together we can have a unique and powerful role in transforming the janitorial industry.

Veronika Geronimo is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Revolution English. Veronika founded Revolution English to reach a large scale of immigrants and as a way to get critical news, information and resources directly into the hands of immigrants. She is the author of several reports related to immigrant health and social services policy and is a former Columnist for the Fil-Am Courier, Hawaii's Leading Filipino Publication.