Leticia Soto refuses to remain silent about an issue that is taboo in the Latino culture: rape.
Soto came to the United States from her native México City back in 2004 fleeing an abusive marriage. Settling in Santa Monica, the newly-single mother of three started working the graveyard shift at a janitorial company “to provide a better future for my children,” she said.
It never crossed her mind that the following months would change her life.
It was 2007 when Soto’s supervisor made unwanted sexual advances. At first, she ignored them until they persisted and he became more aggressive.
“As janitors, we work during a very difficult time, usually from six in the evening until three or four in the morning. We almost always work alone and in isolation, but sometimes, we realize, we are not alone,” said Soto.
For three years, Soto was not only sexually assaulted by her supervisor, but she was also repeatedly raped. One night while walking home late after completing her shift, she was raped by two unidentified strangers on the street.
In both instances, she never contacted authorities.
“I was very afraid. I didn’t want to lose my job. I didn’t want to be deported. I didn’t want to hurt or worry my children. But, I would ask myself, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ ” said Soto.
Soto said her supervisor verbally threatened and harassed her every single day when she clocked in for work. If she ever decided to report his behavior to authorities, he threatened to report her to ICE officials so she could be deported back to México. He also warned that he would terminate her employment.
“He said that even if I did decide to report him to the police or his boss, nobody would believe me,” said Soto.
These incidents occurred nearly ten years ago, but Soto’s scars remain.
Soto, now a survivor, hasn’t forgotten her experiences and continues to work in the janitorial business except this time, she is speaking out. Too many women, she said, continue to be raped on the job and continue to remain silent.
“We spend too much time living in fear. We hide these sad feelings and emotions for unknown reasons. What happens to us, we keep to ourselves out embarrassment of what our family or friends might say, of what society might think, or of how our loved ones might react,” said Soto.
Last Wednesday, Soto and her daughter Leticia Velez stood in front of a room full of community advocates, union members and Sacramento elected officials at the Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento to share her story.
What happens to us, we keep to ourselves out embarrassment of what our family or friends might say, of what society might think, or of how our loved ones might react.
The pain and memories of her past haven’t been forgotten and despite making the decision to come forward, there are still not enough women willing to do so.
Soto’s story is not unique.
Women who clean offices, hotels, malls, and airports across the country are janitors-- most of them undocumented women who work the night shift and are alone, making them especially vulnerable to sexual assault and rape.
Last year, PBS FRONTLINE produced the documentary, “Rape on the Night Shift” in conjunction with Univision, KQED, the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting to investigate the sexual violence that many of these women face.
In it, experts say sexual assault and rape against women in the janitorial business is one of the highest underreported crimes in the country.
Assemblywoman Lorena González, D-San Diego believes there must be a change.
“I had a friend text me almost everyday last year telling me I had to watch the documentary. I kept putting it off because sometimes, as elected officials, we get really caught up in other things,” said González. “One night I couldn’t sleep and I watched the documentary and was so moved and angry that I couldn’t do something to fix the situation,” said González.
After watching the documentary, González decided it was time to take action.
“I am the daughter of immigrants and a single mother and when I look at the faces of janitors, I see my family, my friends and my neighbors and these people are invisible and it is my duty— our collective duty— to ensure that they are not,” said González.
This year, González introduced Assembly Bill 1978, the Property Service Workers’ Protection Act, to establish janitorial workforce protections against sexual harassment and to create a janitorial contractor registration system.
The bill was approved on a 5-2 vote by the Assembly committee on Labor and Employment in April.
Under the bill, the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) would create sexual harassment prevention training materials, establish a toll-free hotline for reporting complaints, and require employers to post and display a notice with information regarding the laws. DIR would also create a contractor registry which will add transparency and increase accountability, similar to what is already in place for garment manufacturers and contractors, farm laborer contractors and the car washing and polishing industry.
The PBS documentary highlighted the risk faced by janitors who work alone at night including a lawsuit filed by 21 women in the Central Valley, alleging that ABM, the largest janitorial company in the country, failed to protect them from sexual harassment and assault from 14 men who worked at the company.
The lawsuit resulted in a $5.8 million dollar settlement back in 2010 in favor of the women. Thus far, it has been the largest payout for victims of rape in state history.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that eight percent of all rapes occur while the victim is working, and about 50 workers a day are sexually assaulted or raped on the job. Rape and sexual assault were reported to police at the lowest percentage (24 percent) when compared to other violent crimes in the workplace. Their research has also found that more than one third of workplace victims lost more than ten days of work after the crime.
Soto’s daughter didn’t know her mother was being raped at work until she came forward just a few days ago.
“My mother is one of the hardest workers that I have ever met. She has always worked at night, sleep deprived during the day, just to put food in our bellies and a roof over our head. When the documentary came out, my mom came forward and I was shocked,” said Velez through tears.
Not knowing her mother was a victim for years was what bothered Velez the most.
“How could she go through something like this and not speak about it? When she found the courage to come forward, so did I because I know my rights and I know I can speak up. The cycle of abuse and rape ends with me,” said Velez.
Soto’s story is part of many that are being shared by women janitors who are finding the courage to finally come forward.
The movement of janitors and their allies has resulted in a campaign called ‘Immigrant Women Rising’ and has the support of the Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), CalCASA, SEIU California, Equal Rights advocates and the California Legislative Women’s Caucus.
I am glad that women are finally standing up and saying ‘¡No Más!’... this behavior is not acceptable and it must stop.
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, Chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus
The campaign started nearly 25 years ago when janitors collectively, decided to put an end to their invisibility and took their demands for justice to the streets. As a result, another movement, ‘Justice 4 Janitors’ was born. The movement seeks to put an end to poverty wages and basic benefits which a majority of California’s janitors still work for. Many have their wages routinely stolen, and face hostile — even dangerous — working conditions.
The movement has led to industry-wide changes that have resulted in janitorial services being contracted out and as a result, have been broken and become an exploitative industry.
Using the phrase ‘¡Ya Basta!’ immigrant women janitors who form part of the movement plan to continue putting pressure on elected officials to have their working conditions improved.
According to the SEIU California, a family with two parents working as janitors earns less than 67 percent of what they need in order to cover basic living expenses. Additionally, janitors are among the most likely to experience wage theft. Researchers at the University of California, Los Ángeles recently found that 32 percent of janitors are paid less than the minimum wage and 80 percent experience overtime violations.
When it comes to sexual abuse, the statistics are grim.
According to a UC Berkeley report, 85 percent of workers who were raped in the workplace reported working alone. The authors wrote that “janitors...generally do not have day-to-day contact with anyone representing the employer, other than the supervisor who may be harassing them. Being isolated from co-workers and the public reduces the likelihood that anyone will intervene or serve as witnesses and allows supervisors to exert greater control over workers.”
What makes janitors particularly vulnerable depends on their gender, ethnicity and immigration status. The threat of retaliation also makes it less likely that a worker will report sexual harassment, sexual assault, wage theft, or other workplace misconduct.
Alejandra Valles, the VP and Southern Regional Director for SEIU United Service Workers West who works with immigrant women janitors and is a survivor herself, said women often don’t know the full scope of what constitutes sexual harassment or sexual assault.
“I have women ask me that if their supervisor sends them dirty photos on their cell phone — if that is sexual harassment. They ask me if their supervisors watching porn from their work computer is OK. I tell them absolutely not,” said Valles.
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara and Chair of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus believes all janitors, especially those who are immigrant women, deserve the support of their male counterparts.
“I am glad that women are finally standing up and saying ‘¡No Más!’ We must call on our brothers, husbands, partners and all men, to say this behavior is not acceptable and it must stop,” said Jackson.