SACRAMENTO -- "Angela" came to the United States from the Philippines with the dream that many immigrants hold: to improve her life and seize opportunities. When she arrived in Southern California, however, the foreign labor contractor who had gotten her a visa, helped her travel and promised to find a good job, told her she owed $12,000 and that she'd have to work 10 years to pay off her debt.
For two and a half years, the immigrant, who asked that her real name not be used, worked 18-hour days, seven days a week at a home for the elderly, sleeping in the hallways of the facility and "eating scraps of food" to survive, she said. She was threatened with deportation if she tried to escape.
But she did escape the harrowing conditions when a neighbor learned of her plight, contacted the FBI, and set up a sting that ensnared the labor contractor. Now, as an advocate for victims of human trafficking, Angela is backing legislation, SB516, that would make it illegal for California employers to hire foreign workers who are brought to the U.S. by labor contractors not registered with the state.
Contractors would also be prohibited from charging fees to workers for recruitment -- and would be required to disclose the terms and conditions of employment.
The bill is part of a two-bill package touted Tuesday by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, aimed at protecting immigrant workers.
"It was like winning the lottery, traveling to the U.S.," Angela said. "When I got to the U.S., things were very different than I thought. Workers like us need more protection."
The bill would require foreign labor contracts to be registered with the California Labor Commission, which would then have the authority to "root out those who are exploiting workers," Steinberg said.
He also is sponsoring SB666, which would penalize employers for threatening to turn workers into immigration officials for complaining about sexual harassment or unsafe working conditions. Employers and businesses found to violate the law could have their operating licenses suspended or revoked.
Current labor laws just don't provide enough protection to immigrant workers who are threatened by their employers, said Michael Marsh, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance.
"There's people who come to our office with valid complaints and valid claims that their rights have been violated and yet they're afraid," Marsh said. "Even once they are told they had a legal right to insist on not being sexually harassed or to expect the pay they were promised ... even when they're told they have protections -- they don't want to pursue their claims because they fear deportation either for themselves or of a family member."
The bills easily cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
"Working people ought to have the right to be treated with respect and dignity," Steinberg said. "If we're going to be serious about immigration reform in this country and hopefully establish a path to citizenship for people currently undocumented, it begins by treating those people and all people with respect in the workplace."