Journalist Bernice Yeung speaks on overlooked aspects of #MeToo movement at Hovey Lecture

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 8:56pm

Bernice Yeung, this year's featured Knight Wallace fellow, speaks about her book detailing the stories of female migrant workers who were exploited and sexually assaulted by their employers Tuesday afternoon.

Bernice Yeung, this year's featured Knight Wallace fellow, speaks about her book detailing the stories of female migrant workers who were exploited and sexually assaulted by their employers Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Aaron Baker/Daily

The #MeToo movement has focused primarily on high status figures — women speaking out against Hollywood moguls, powerful bosses and even our current president. Journalist Bernice Yeung’s recently published work, after years of investigation, focuses instead on the experiences of women in particularly vulnerable workplaces, such as janitors, farmers and domestic workers. 

Each year, the Wallace House at the University of Michigan recognizes a Knight-Wallace journalist to give the prestigious Graham Hovey Lecture. Hovey was a New York Times journalist and served as the director of the fellowship program from 1980 to 1986. The fellowship program offers journalists the opportunity to study at the University for an academic year to collaborate on learning and create strategies to improve the field of journalism.

ProPublica reporter Bernice Yeung was chosen as this year's featured fellow for her investigative work in the seemingly unheard voices of the #MeToo movement. Yeung has investigated the sexual assault of immigrant workers as a member of the “Rape in the Fields” reporting team and the sexual abuse of janitorial women through “Rape on the Night Shift.” Yeung published “In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers” in March 2018. Yeung’s investigation into the abuse of low-income women began years before the movement but has highlighted a sector of people previously left in the dark.

Yeung was originally learned about this issue after hearing the experience of one low-income woman and the sexual harassment she endured.

“Is this a terrible but isolated event, or part of a larger problem that requires attention and reform?” she asked.

Yeung’s lecture focused on the experiences exclusive to low-income workers, explaining how this work environment is conducive to ongoing sexual harassment. Particularly in contrast to many famous faces of #MeToo, these women have limited options when it comes to abuse. There are language barriers, and in some cases the abusers are the sole interpreters for filing a report, resulting in reports of abuse getting “lost in translation.” These women face the threat of losing their jobs, being deported or receiving retaliation for speaking out.

“Low-wage immigrants, laboring in isolation, are at a unique risk for sexual harassment and assault,” Yeung said.

According to Yeung, our judicial system relies on the assumption that survivors will speak out, leaving many low-income women unprotected. Domestic workers have also been actively excluded from legal protection; federal laws only protect companies with 15 or more employees.

Many of the women Yeung interviewed explained the risks are too high to report these incidents. Many victims are the sole breadwinner for their children and take on these low-wage jobs simply to support them. Yeung explained the risk of their livelihoods is a lot to someone who is just trying to earn a paycheck through an honest day’s work.

“The only rational thing to do is to say nothing,” Yeung quoted.

Not all of these workers have remained silent. Georgina Hernandez came to the United States with her six children after fleeing her abusive husband and found a job as a nighttime janitor in California. Her boss threatened to fire her, deport her and hurt her daughter if she did not concede to his sexual advances. Silent for years about the abuse, Hernandez is now in a leader in a California janitors’ union. She is proactive in helping others after learning how to help herself and hearing the stories of many other women in similar positions as her.

The Fair Food Program has recently emerged, enforcing a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment. If farmers don’t abide, they can’t sell their produce to grocery stores. This program is one of many started by women working in a vulnerable environment.

Yeung ended her lecture by redirecting the attention to the purpose of the #MeToo movement. She stated these women have been overlooked and undervalued, and deserve justice, in whatever capacity that may entail. Some of these women want their abusers fired, others want to face their abusers and some simply want to be believed. Justice is highly individualized, but Yeung emphasized her belief that the next step of the #MeToo movement is to use the current spotlight to showcase the stories of low-income women and to shape preventative policies.

“Justice is the absence of the transgression happening in the first place,” Yeung said.

Public Policy senior Alli Berry is involved with the sexual violence prevention community on Michigan’s campus.  

“(The lecture) reminded (me) a lot of the community that survivor’s on Michigan’s campus have built . . . there’s something really powerful about survivors coming together and finding a space where they can share their experiences, and working to prevent violence in the future,” Berry said.