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steinbergimmigration.JPGAs Congress continues to work towards a federal immigration overhaul, lawmakers in California's Capitol are considering proposals aimed at strengthening the rights of immigrant workers in the state.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg highlighted two of his bills in a news conference today, saying it's important to ensure that workers are treated with dignity and respect regardless of their legal status.

"California's immigrant workers make a valuable contribution to our economy and the American dream," Steinberg said. "If we're going to be serious about immigration reform in this country and hopefully establish a path to citizenship for people who are currently undocumented, it begins by treating those people and all people with respect in the workplace."

Steinberg's bills, which are to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee today, target employers who use threats related to immigration status to coerce or abuse employees and foreign labor contractors that recruit workers from overseas and help them gain legal employment status.

Under Senate Bill 666, employers who retaliate against employee complaints by threatening to report the immigration status of workers or their families could lose their business license and face civil penalties of up to $10,000.

A second measure, Senate Bill 516, would set licensing and employee relations standards for foreign labor contractors. Supporters say those requirements, which include disclosure of the terms of employment for workers recruited by such firms, could prevent workers from being tricked or intimidated into forced labor or other forms of slavery.

"While many employers and contractors behave ethically, others do not," Steinberg said. "Some employers continue to use immigration status as blackmail, to force workers into debt bondage, to ignore basic workplace safety, to sexually harass employees and to inhibit coworkers from reporting the sexual harassment or mistreatment of other workers or to hold back wages."

Steinberg was joined at the news conference by farmworker-rights and anti-trafficking advocates, as well as several workers who shared stories of threat and intimidation. One woman, who identified herself as Angela, said she was told she had to work 18-hour days for years as a senior home aide to repay debts she owed to a firm that helped her legally come to the United States from the Philippines.

"Workers like us, we need the protection and information," the woman said.

There is no formal opposition on file for either bill. Another measure similar to Steinberg's bill on threats related to legal status, by Assemblyman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, is working its way through the Assembly.

PHOTO CREDIT: California Senate leader Darrell Steinberg talks about two of his measures that aim to give more protections to immigrant workers in the state at a Capitol news conference on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. Torey Van Oot / Sacramento Bee


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