Bill aims to curb human trafficking

Bill aims to curb human trafficking

Roots_25th_Anniversary_EditionWhen Angela Guanzon was offered the opportunity to leave the Philippines and work in the United States, she felt like she had won the lottery. But when she arrived, her dream turned into a nightmare. Guanzon was told by the Filipino woman who brought her and 10 others to the U.S. that she owed $12,000 and would have to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week in an elderly care facility in Los Angeles for 10 years in order to pay off the debt.

“I eat table scraps and sleep in the hallways on the floor,” Guanzon told the California Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee on April 24 about her life then. “My coworkers and I were told that if we tried to escape we would be deported, they are calling the police and telling them that we stole something from her.”

After more than two years of hard labor, her life changed for the better when a person living near the facility noticed that the workers rarely left the building, and notified the police. Guanzon told her story to the FBI and testified in court, resulting in the woman who victimized her being sentenced to five years in prison. Since then Guanzon has become a nursing assistant and is working with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking to help human trafficking victims.

“We’re a group of survivors learning leadership and raising awareness and influencing policies to better protect human trafficking survivors,” she said. “What happened to me happens to a lot of workers. Some workers end up enslaved in farms all over the U.S. with armed guards.”

SB 516

Guanzon spoke at the committee hearing in support of SB 516, which is designed to crack down on unscrupulous foreign labor contractors and the employers that use them.

“Workers like me need more information and protection, so in case we take an opportunity to come here and work we have freedom like everybody,” she told the committee. “We need more protection. Please help us.”

SB 516 has had no problem sailing through the Legislature. But, as with much well intended legislation, there are concerns that it could do harm as well as good.

The bill “[a]pproaches the real problem of human trafficking in an overly broad manner that will harm legitimate employers by imposing significant burdens on and risks to California employers who hire workers from foreign countries,” wrote the California Chamber of Commerce in its current bill priority list. Numerous trade associations for businesses that hire foreign workers are also opposed.

SB 516 would require several things of foreign labor contractors. They:

* Must register with the state labor commissioner, who could investigate them, including whether they have ever violated the law.

* Must post a surety bond between $25,000-$75,000 based on gross receipts up to $2 million.

* Must pay fines of $1,000-$25,000 per violation. Enforcement actions can be brought by the labor commissioner or a violated worker.

* Cannot charge a fee to the workers for their employment services and cannot threaten or coerce them.

In addition, employers cannot contract with an unregistered contractor.

Darrell Steinberg

The bill’s author, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told the committee that SB 516 is the first of a two-bill set that seeks to protect immigrant workers and foreign labor contractors.

“While many contractors behave ethically and lawfully, there are some that do not,” Steinberg said. “They can misuse the U.S. visa programs to exploit workers. They can charge exorbitant fees for their services. They can force workers into debt bondage. They can falsify documents and deceive workers about the terms and conditions of their present employment. They can threaten workers with blacklisting and discrimination and other forms of retaliation, including the imposition of additional fees if the workers themselves choose to complain.”

Steinberg did not say how large of a problem this is in California. But it’s potentially significant given that there were about 130,000 temporary foreign workers in the state as of January 2011.

“The bill would require foreign labor contractors to disclose the full and fair information to foreign workers in the language they understand about the terms and conditions of their work here in California,” he said. “We make it illegal for a contractor to knowingly provide a worker with false or misleading information. We prohibit a foreign labor contractor from soliciting a worker to come to California unless there’s a bona fide offer of employment. We prohibit charging the worker a fee for recruiting activities. The employer ought to recruit the worker because he or she is needed in California.”

Slavery

Stephanie Richard, the legal and policy director for the bill’s sponsor, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, told the committee that slavery is still alive and well in America nearly 150 years after the Civil War ended.

“In 2013 slaves may not be chained or shackled, but they are no freer,” she said. “Slavery is not simply ownership of one person over another. Modern day slavery is much more subtle. Trafficking victims work in factories in the United States. Trafficking victims harvest our vegetables, process foods that end up on our dining room tables. They clean people’s homes and take care of the young, elderly and sick. They are enslaved not only through physical restraint bonds, but also through coercion, fear and intimidation. In today’s global economy, workers can be enslaved by threats of deportation, lack of viable alternatives and especially debt.

“Often we think of undocumented immigrants as the most vulnerable to human trafficking. What CAST is seeing today in our caseload, as well as other service providers around the United States, is that trafficking is flourishing in our documented temporary visa worker programs. In fact, in CAST’s current caseload today, 50 percent of our workers came in through unlawful visas. This needs to change. SB 516 is one of the few preventative measures that we have seen that California can enact to eradicate modern day slavery in our own back yard.”

Concerns

No one spoke in opposition to the bill. But the legislative analyst has cited numerous concerns raised by business groups.

“According to [this bill], any person or company that assists in securing or actually secures or provides employment to foreign workers for compensation is a foreign labor contractor, and as such, any employer who hires a foreign worker would be subject to the requirements of the bill,” wrote the California Chamber of Commerce. “Accordingly, this sweeping definition appears to include employers of all foreign workers who enter the U. S. legitimately through different types of visas. These workers are often assisted by a variety of entities, or recruited by the employer, all of which under this bill will be designated as foreign labor contractors.”

The workers can include computer engineers, doctors, nurses, college students that work seasonally in theme parks and resorts, actors and other movie and television professionals, according to the Chamber. Businesses are most concerned about the bill’s bond and registration requirements, which could result in penalties and lawsuits if any of the detailed information is incomplete or inaccurate.

“[N]o actual harm must be shown to bring a private right of action; anyone who believes there is a violation can file a lawsuit,” the Chamber states.

Opponents also point out that immigration reform is currently being considered in Congress, which could result in conflicting or duplicative requirements on California employers and foreign labor contractors. As a result, they are concerned that “California employers who hire foreign workers will be at a competitive disadvantage to businesses in other states because they will face higher litigation risks, and higher burdens.”

Steinberg is proposing amendments to address some of those concerns, which are scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Aug. 13.

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