The fight to end gender-based violence in the construction sector. #WeAreOutiHicks

United States (OpenDemocracy) – On 14 February 2017, 32 year-old apprentice carpenter Outi Hicks was murdered on the job in Fresno, California.

Hicks began a pre-apprenticeship program while in prison. Once released, she was indentured into a contract with the Carpenters Union, and began working diligently as an apprentice carpenter. A mother of three beloved sons, Hicks was determined to build a better life for herself and her children. She followed all of the rules set before her, earned every certification she could, rode her bike miles to and from work: Outi was dedicated to her craft as a carpenter.

From the time she met her murderer, Aaron Lopez, he was determined to give her a hard time. They worked on the same site, and while his exact position is unknown, he was a non-union worker. Hicks’ position as a union apprentice was just one of the many things Lopez harassed her about. She told her family of how he bullied and said nasty things to her, and even spoke of killing her. But Hicks’ primary goal was to better herself. She was determined not to allow his words or actions to deter her and to make things work, despite the negativity that this man brought into her life.

On that fateful Valentine’s Day, Hicks was working with Lopez at the Rio Bravo plant in Fresno, California. The two got into an argument, and Hicks turned and walked away. Lopez ran behind her and bashed her in the back of the head with a metal pole. It is thought that the first blow killed her. But Lopez didn’t stop. He kept hitting her, and hitting her until people working in the area were able to climb down to where Hicks’ lifeless body was still being assaulted by Lopez. When they were finally able to pull him off of her, it was too late. Outi Hicks was dead.

This incident is a dark example of the gender-based violence (GBV) experienced by women working in the construction industry. According to the AFL-CIO, “[w]omen make up only 2.6% of workers in construction and extraction occupations, and a U.S. Department of Labor study found that 88% of them have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work”. Hicks’ murder should also prompt us to engage in serious discussions around GBV in the construction sector, and how any future acts of violence can be prevented. Did anyone witness the ongoing harassment of Hicks by Lopez? If so, what steps were taken to stop the harassment? What could have been done to protect Outi Hicks? Were the appropriate recourses for reporting GBV in this context available to Outi Hicks and potential witnesses?

Women in Construction

The 2017 Women Build Nations conference was held on 13–15 October Chicago, Illinois. In a presentation called “We Are Outi Hicks! End Workplace Violence NOW!”, the Chicago Women in Trades Diversity and Inclusion Committee paid tribute to Hicks and other women who have been senselessly murdered on construction sites. Hundreds of women in attendance signed a rendition of Hicks with the statements “I am Outi Hicks” and “We are Outi Hicks”. Bandanas and hard hat stickers proclaiming “We Are Outi Hicks, End Workplace Violence NOW!” were sold with the intention of bringing awareness to GBV in the workplace.

It is of grave importance that Outi Hicks’ life is not forgotten. On Thursday, March 8, 2018, in Fresno, California, Aaron Lopez will go on trial for the murder of Outi Hicks. We are urging all who can to please fill the courtroom. And for those who can’t, we are asking you to change your social media profile picture to the purple, “We are Outi Hicks, End Workplace Violence Now!” meme. Together, we can make sure that Outi Hicks is not forgotten. Together, we can work towards ending GBV in the construction sector, among others. Together, we can work towards change!

This report prepared by LATISA KINDRED for OpenDemocracy

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