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California Bills Would Punish Employers Who Take Advantage Of Immigrant Workers

By Aviva Shen

"California Bills Would Punish Employers Who Take Advantage Of Immigrant Workers"

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Farm workers in Bakersfield, CA (Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times)

Two bills to protect immigrant workers from exploitation cleared California’s Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. The legislation targets California employers who hire undocumented workers and those who threaten their employees with deportation if they complain about dangerous working conditions.

S.B. 516 would ban California employers from hiring foreign workers brought to the U.S. by labor contractors who are not registered with the state, allowing the Labor Commission to determine which contractors are violating workers’ rights. Contractors would also be banned from charging workers recruitment fees, a common gouging tactic used by human traffickers. The other bill, S.B. 666, levels fines up to $10,000 and revokes operating licenses from businesses caught threatening to turn in workers to immigration officials for complaining about their conditions.

If passed, the proposed legislation could help countless immigrants who have endured decades of horrific abuse in silence, as one abused immigrant-turned-activist detailed:

“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.

The bill would also address rampant exploitation in California’s enormous agriculture industry, which runs largely on immigrant workers. These workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are undocumented, suffer dangerous and unsanitary working conditions for a pittance far below the state’s minimum wage. Women who work on these farms endure frequent sexual harassment and violence, but few report their employers for fear of retribution.

Since California farm workers are directly exposed to massive amounts of harmful pesticides, punishing heat without breaks, and injury, they have a death rate five times higher than other employees. Stories of employees being worked to death, such as a 17-year-old pregnant vineyard worker who collapsed and died from heat exhaustion, are common in the state.

Anti-immigrant activists have opposed the bills, claiming that these basic labor protections are “rewarding” immigrants and “aiding and abetting criminal behavior.” The American Farm Bureau has also tried to make it easier for farms to continue paying foreign workers unlivable wages.

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