Garment Bosses’ Slave Shop Revealed; Workers Still Face Deportation Threat

By Barry Fatland, The Militant, Vol.59 no.32, 4 September 1995

LOS ANGELES’The exposure of slave-like conditions at a garment sweatshop in the nearby town of El Monte, where 72 Thai workers had been in bondage for years, has sparked widespread public outrage. State officials shut down the shop after an August 2 raid by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

The employers had kept the workers under round-the-clock surveillance. Locked doors, high walls, and razor wire surrounding the compound prevented workers from leaving. The bosses tried to terrify the female workers with stories that they might be raped if they left.

One freed worker reported, They said they would go after my family and kill them all if I left without permission.

Several workers report that they were recruited at Bangkok sewing factories with promises of jobs, passports, visas, and paid travel costs. They were to pay $1,200 out of their wages over a period of one year to cover everything.

Once in the United States, they were taken directly to the factory and put to work for up to 22 hours per day, seven days a week. They averaged 69 cents an hour pay.

Two women workers, who are using the names Jena and Bee to protect their families, escaped from the complex two years ago when they heard of plans to install the razor wire. They were too fearful to go to authorities until Jena related the story of her two-year period of slavery while applying for a green card.

Risking deportation, she is willing to testify against her former bosses. The majority of those who were recently freed have also agreed to testify.

After the raid on the plant, the workers were jailed by the INS for more than a week until the Thai Community Development Center, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees agreed to sign bonds and arranged for their housing and personal needs.

The 67 women and five men now have six-month work permits allowing them to remain in the United States so they can serve as material witnesses against their employers. But they all still face deportation proceedings. Standard INS procedure is to deport material witnesses after they give their testimony.

Immigrant rights organizations condemned the INS and the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, saying both agencies knew of the El Monte slave operation for more than three years and did not act, claiming they had no solid evidence the workers were being held against their will.

Anger has mounted over the treatment of the workers by the INS, who shackled them as they were taken from the detention center to various legal proceedings.

INS officials defended themselves by saying the Thai workers were treated just like other immigrants in their custody.