Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education are shining a light on troubling conditions they uncovered in the state’s property services industry. Their new report, Race to the Bottom: How Low‐Road Subcontracting Affects Working Conditions in California’s Property Services Industry, was released last week.
Women janitors and security guards in the industry— a rapidly growing sector of the state’s economy– are at increased risk of violence and sexual harassment, due to a combination of factors that allow the problems, as the study claims, “to occur and to remain unchecked.”
According to program coordinator for the Labor Occupational Health Program at U.C. Berkeley, Helen Chen, “Janitors and security officers at risk tend to work alone at night in empty buildings…isolated from almost everyone except their immediate supervisors.” Chen, who contributed to the report, announced the study’s findings at a press conference on March 8, International Women’s Day. In the study, Chen noted that subcontracting systems, which often “operate underground” or keep workplace hazards unchecked in the property service sector, produce an industry dysfunction that can “manifest itself in the form of sexual harassment and assault.”
“A key finding,” she told the press conference, “is that the property service industry is structured in a way that increases the risk of sex harassment. We broke this down to several different risk factors. Janitors and security guards at risk tend to work alone at night in empty buildings…and are isolated from almost everyone except their immediate supervisors,” This isolation is a major risk factor for harassment, particularly when the harasser is their supervisor — which is a common occurrence in this industry.
Echoing Chen’s remarks on factors impacting women in the janitorial industry, Lilia Garcia-Brower said, “It’s the perfect storm of conditions that come together.” Garcia-Brower, who is executive director of the watchdog group Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund, cited “the extreme vulnerability of a female workforce [within] a chain of command that’s traditionally male, and a workforce where workers are isolated and alone.”
Martha Mejia–a janitor for 10 years and a sexual harassment victim—spoke through an interpreter to pose a challenge to media attendees: “Ask yourselves how many women are going to be sexually harassed tonight, in these buildings in the middle of the night, in empty rooms. What is going to happen to us? Who is going to protect us? We don’t have any protection whatsoever.”
“The problem is largely invisible to outsiders,” Chen noted.
Hiring workers under contract—instead of using in-house employees – began gaining popularity in the 1970s and now is a well-established practice. Almost four out of 10 janitors and seven of every 10 security guards in California are contract employees.
Between 1990 and 2014, California employment grew 44 percent for janitorial services and 83 percent for security services — compared to a 20 percent rate for all private industry. According to the study, “across the state but especially in large cities and metro areas, janitors and security guards employed by contractors clean buildings owned by commercial real estate trusts, retailers, school districts, warehouses, banks, residential buildings and high-tech firms.”
“We know about the deteriorating working conditions these workers face,” study co-author Sara Hinkley said at the press conference. “Property service sector workers are the archetype for contracting out. Outsourcing has driven labor standards lower and lower. It is now pervasive across client sectors in California and in the nation.”
Outsourcing has led to lower wages, fewer benefits, higher rates of part-time work, inferior working conditions and illegal labor practices, according to the study. In the larger context, “low-road contracting” affects women and other subcontract workers in the industry, with possible implications for employment and labor laws, benefits and workplace enforcement strategies.
Women comprise a significant percentage of the state’s 369,000 janitors and security guards, but the figures for how often they are sexually harassed or assaulted at work are not well known. Accessing information is made more difficult by the fact that these crimes are under-reported. Other studies, the Berkeley authors note, have shown that women under-report “for a variety of reasons including shame, despair, lack of support, a sense of powerlessness, fear of not being believed, distrust of government agencies, and a lack of awareness about rights and resources available to survivors.”
“In her experience, as many as three-quarters of janitors experience sexual harassment,” the study says of Garcia-Brower, while citing another survey that claims “as many as 35 to 50 percent of women are sexually harassed at some point in their working life.”
Despite the under-reporting of abuse against women, it is known that “being Latina, an immigrant and undocumented can make it more likely that a worker will be vulnerable to sexual harassment and less likely that a worker will report it due to the fear of retaliation or lack of familiarity with their rights or resources available to them,” according to Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization.
Erika, an undocumented janitorial worker interviewed as a part of the Berkeley study, said she was threatened with dismissal if she did not have sex with her supervisor. Other women at her workplace faced similar threats and the car belonging to a male coworker who witnessed the supervisor harassing female coworkers and tried to intervene was damaged.
The Berkeley study documented other factors in workplace violence and sexual harassment against female janitors, including fewer financial resources and difficulty holding people accountable in the complex environment of contracting and subcontracting.
Workplace culture in some companies, especially in low-wage industries, negatively influences the environment in which women janitors work. Few employers are prepared to prevent or stop sexual harassment. Policies forbidding it may or may not exist and, if they do, they may not be adequate or enforced. Knowledge and training deficits, and the scarceness of employer investigations contribute to violence and sexual harassment of women in the industry.
Workers also find it challenging to successfully file charge or claims against their employer — governmental agencies have limited resources, investigations are protracted and criminal charges against harassers are rare.
“We have seen this time and time again, where there are complaints received by certain segments of their workforce [that] just [don’t] matter,” federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney Anna Park said. “It is not that important. It is a cost of doing business.”
Martha Mejia appeared buoyed, however, by the Labor Center study and the celebration of International Women’s Day. “Today we are uniting to say that we’re not taking it any more. My body is mine, my soul is mine,” she said. “We have got to break the silence. We are not alone.”
Debra A. Varnado is the founder, editor and publisher of The Fifth Avenue Times Online Journal and Newsletter. Her work has been published by Oxford University Press, Tsehai Publishers and Distributors, StorySouth.com, Howard University, George Mason University and the Wave Community Newspaper.