I’m in my second day of a five day fast with night janitors for a cause most people don’t even realize is a cause: many immigrant women cleaning buildings across our country live in fear of sexual assault by predatory managers who know they are working alone and need to keep their jobs. It’s stuff so sinister you can picture one of those cartoon villains twisting his moustache as he plans the act. But it is real. It is happening to people who clean buildings we or our family members work in. And finally, despite all the risks, some women stepped forward to speak the truth about their experiences and change things for their sisters.
I first learned about this hidden crisis during a screening of the Frontline film Rape on the Night Shift a couple of weeks ago at the state building in Oakland. You can watch the whole thing online and I dare you not to cry. What moved me even more than the film, though, was listening to the stories of women who had to find the courage to risk their jobs and means of supporting their families to do what was right for themselves and for other women at risk. What struck me in particular that day was a young woman whose mother is part of the campaign. She said something along the lines of “there are certain things you never expect to talk about with your mother: sex, rape, violence at work.” She then expressed how proud she was of her mother and how proud she was to stand with her. I was deeply moved.
Last week, one of the organizers of the film told me that the workers would be fasting Monday through Friday of this week, demanding that Governor Brown follow his moral compass and sign AB 1978 into law. According to the United Service Workers West,
Female janitors face unique risk of sexual harassment and assault as their jobs often require working alone at night in empty buildings, an epidemic PBS Frontline profiled in “Rape on the Night Shift,” and in a report from UC Berkeley earlier this year: “Perfect Storm: How Supervisors Get Away with Sexually Harassing Workers Who Work Alone at Night.”
AB 1978, the Property Services Worker Protection Act would enhance the Department of Industrial Relations’ authority to prevent assault by requiring employer training and prevention plans, establishing a hotline for victims, and toughening enforcement for employers who leave workers at risk.
As janitor and activist Maria Gonzalez said,
“I was sexually assaulted at work, twice. The employer transferred the supervisor and me to the same building. With nowhere to go, I felt trapped. As survivors, we have stepped out of the shadows to fight back against rape and exploitation, because we know the bosses count on our silence to keep us vulnerable. Ya Basta! We built a movement that can’t be stopped because more and more women are coming forward to support each other and create a safe workplace. Now Governor Brown must do his part and sign AB 1978, because no woman should ever be afraid to go to work.”
I heard stories like this from the women who were fasting when I met them yesterday. One woman was assaulted, took self-defense lessons, fought off her boss with a letter opener when he attacked her again, and was fired for her efforts. Other women were assaulted, forced to do things against their will, and raped. And they said they were glad to be doing this, that they had released their fear, that they were proud to be doing this for the women who follow them into these workplaces. They were excited to be fasting.
There is something about workers fasting that hits me at my core as a person of faith as well as an activist. At a rally yesterday, a labor organizer announced that the workers would be staging a hunger strike.
Fasting has strong, ancient roots. Fasting is a critical part of the Christian faith (and Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish among others) for spiritual as well as sometimes justice reasons. But even when justice is part of it, fasting involves connecting to something bigger than oneself (and in this case praying for divine intervention to evoke right action by our state’s elected leader).
Fasting can be about community, even when it is a solitary practice. Several of the women fasting this week are Catholic, like Governor Brown. I saw some of them holding rosaries as they received a blessing from Rabbi Rothbaum yesterday. I saw some of them reading Catholic devotionals in Spanish. And I heard one of them say “Having religious leaders visit us and pray with us reminds me that we are not just activists. We are tools being used by God to make the world better.” The ten women fasting will be community for each other, and I hope that knowing I am fasting with them will remind them that there is a larger community supporting them. But most importantly, I hope that their spiritual act will remind their and my governor that our shared ties of faith call us to treat God’s children with deep compassion and dignity, and that our shared faith does not allow evil to continue undisrupted.
When the workers shout “¡Ya basta!” it is a prayer. It is the prayer of our God who will not tolerate sexual violence. And it is God’s own prayer put into action by faithful women, as has happened for millenia: faithful women have put hands and feet to God’s prayers.
I believe the saint Teresa of Avila is saying to the women fasting at the Capitol today, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
And the workers I met, who have survived sexual violence in the workplace, are serving as Christ’s hands and feet, answering God’s “¡Ya basta!” prayer as loudly as God would wish.
If you live in California, please contact Governor Brown and ask him to sign AB 1978 today to end rape on the night shift: (916) 445-2841.