These Women Janitors Fought Workplace Harassment Long Before #MeToo

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Georgina Hernández is not the same women she was three years ago. When the young janitor from Southern California was first interviewed for a documentary called “Rape on The Night Shift” she was described as “timid and teary eyed.” The investigative documentary did a deep dive into the sexual abuse of immigrant women who clean office spaces, malls and restaurants in the hours that take place long after the crowds have cleared.

Hernández, a janitor who accused her supervisor of raping her on the job became one of the documentary’s central subjects.

“Rape on The Night Shift” exposed the particular vulnerabilities immigrant janitors face while working alone at night.

The documentary, which was released a little over 2 years before #MeToo went viral, looked into the experiences of a handful of women janitors in Southern California. In the documentary Hernández explained how she worked cleaning movie theaters and restaurants from 11 at night until 11 in the morning. She never received overtime or rest breaks and often became a victim of harassment.

“When you need the job, you become a victim by not having the courage to say no,” Hernández said according to PRI. “And if you say no, you are going to lose the job. I didn’t have someone to tell or anyone I could trust.”

But it was at another job, cleaning a hotel lobby, that put Hernández in the path of a supervisor who she claims constantly harassed and eventually raped her. In a lawsuit, Hernández alleged that the supervisor sexually assaulted her in a parking garage.

After the documentary’s release, women janitors began to protest against the harassment they faced.

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The documentary’s reporting revealed loopholes in the laws that protected janitors and allowed issues such as low wages and abusive working conditions to fly under the radar. After watching the documentary, at a screening hosted by California’s janitors’ union, SEIU-United Service Workers West, many of the janitors, Hernández included, rallied together to protest. They marched, posted billboards across the San Francisco Bay Area that called to “End Rape on the Night Shift,” and spoke out about their own experiences. But their most impactful accomplishment was a push for legislation that would amp up safeguards that protect janitors.

On September 12, 2016, 14 of the janitors carried out a hunger strike on the state capitol’s lawn to fight for the bill.

Three days later the bill was signed into law. The new law makes sexual harassment training for janitors and their supervisors mandatory and requires janitorial companies to sign onto a registry that keeps track of subcontractors. The companies who refuse to fall in line and comply are barred from doing business in the state of California.

“I’m proud that women [janitors] are standing up now, aren’t scared,” Hernández told PRI. “It hurts. It makes you angry, but you have to break the silence. You can’t be embarrassed. It’s not your fault. It’s happened to lots of women. Not just one or two, but thousands are behind me, speaking up. Maybe our world as immigrant women will change.”

Hernández, who is still working the night shifts as a janitor, says for her, the #MeToo movement is bittersweet.

“I’m sad and angry at the same time,” Hernández said. “Those women have money, they’re powerful, they have everything in life that I don’t have. I’m proud of them for speaking up. But who listened to me? Nobody. These are important women. But I’m important, too.”


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