Custodial workers speak out against workplace sexual violence on Sproul Plaza

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

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Janitors who struggled in silence as survivors of harassment and assault in the workplace shared their experiences in support of state legislation via megaphone Thursday afternoon on the steps of Sproul Hall.

They were joined by dozens of members of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, that organized the event after legislation designed to guarantee janitors greater workplace protections recently passed in the California State Legislature. Gov. Jerry Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign AB 1978 into law.

One survivor at the speak-out, Rosa Aviles, through a translator alleged she had faced verbal harassment for months in 2011 at the hands of a foreman-in-training while working as a janitor for ABM, a private contractor. Aviles, who was not employed by UC Berkeley, said that while she continued working out of economic necessity, she “never showed him that I was afraid of him.”

“It’s because of women like them we’ve gotten this bill to pass,” said Denise Solis, first vice president for the union’s local United Service Workers West, during the speak-out.

Many janitors on the night shift face similar predicaments to Aviles as women who speak English as a second language and spend long hours alone with supervisors, according to Solis. She added that a lack of institutional regulation within an “underground economy” leaves them especially vulnerable to wage theft and abuse.

Dozens of students on their way to afternoon classes stopped to listen to the speakers, who were highly visible amid the throngs of passersby and campus organizations tabling on Sproul Plaza. One UC Berkeley senior, Cate Liu, said she was particularly drawn to the story of one survivor, who broke her silence after the birth of her daughter.

“This is a really cool thing about Berkeley, you don’t see as much things like this elsewhere,” Liu said. “People always pretend things are OK.”

AB 1978, which was sponsored by the SEIU, would require further documentation from janitors’ employers and would lay the groundwork for mandatory workplace training to prevent sexual harassment. Additionally, the bill would facilitate these efforts with an advisory committee led by the state Department of Industrial Relations director.

The bill was influenced by a documentary series depicting custodial workers’ experiences with abuse that was made in collaboration with the local Investigative Reporting Program, “Rape on the Night Shift,” according to a press release from the bill’s author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.

The campus had previously contracted night-shift custodial employees from ABM but announced in May that they would be offered direct employment on campus as part of the university’s Fair Work/Fair Wage Plan.

“I think this (bill) should be a standard workplace practice,” said UC Berkeley junior, Jose Fernandez, who watched the demonstration. “Sexual assault against workers connects to sexual assault against students on campus.”

Alexander Barreira is the university news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @abarreira_dc.