The Press-Enterprise: Thai sweatshop workers, enslaved for years in El Monte, are now honored

By Victoria Ivie

Maliwan Radomphon Clinton was promised a livable wage, which she could use to help send money back to her family in Thailand. She would work to pay her visa off. She, like many other workers, were promised good working conditions, fair pay and yearly vacations.

But when she arrived in 1994 to live and work in a makeshift factory compound in El Monte, Clinton knew things wouldn’t be what they were promised.

“From 7 a.m. to after midnight, I worked. We were told if we complained they would hurt us. They said we would bring harm to our families,” she said. “I know things were not right, but I was already in there and had nothing I could do… this is not the America I dreamed about. America is a land of freedom. I did not have freedom.”

Clinton was one of 72 garment workers, mainly women, who were trafficked in the early 1990s and held captive for years working in a makeshift garment factory, in a row of unassuming townhouses in El Monte. Their story is considered one of the earliest known cases of modern-day slavery in the U.S.

A group of 25 of the formerly enslaved workers were honored this month by the U.S. Department of Labor, and received medals for their courage and resilience.

Officials recognized how their high-profile case shaped modern labor and immigration laws that protect immigrant workers and victims of trafficking.

Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su inducted the workers into the Department of Labor Hall of Honor at a Monday, Sept. 18 ceremony in Washington D.C.

“By sheer force of will, they forced corporations and government to re-examine their practices,” Su said. “They refuse to succumb to societal pressures and cultural norms that told them to stay in the shadows.”

Officials in Congress are also raising awareness of the garment workers’ story. On Sept. 20, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, introduced a House resolution to honor the Thai workers.

“Despite the trauma they endured, they helped to expand rights for immigrant workers and survivors of human trafficking and hold corporations responsible for the conditions in which their clothes are made,” Chu said in a statement. The resolution “will reaffirm this place in labor history in the congressional record.”

Some of the nation’s strongest anti-sweatshop laws were passed as a result of the El Monte workers’ case which, Chu said, laid the groundwork for passing immigration acts for victims of trafficking, sexual slavery and crime.

On Sept. 27, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., delivered a floor speech to the U.S. Senate, saying when they “were finally freed, they owed nothing to this country.”

“And yet, they stood up and fought to protect others from going through the hell they endured. As each and every one of them has shown us, the best way to respond to the atrocities they’ve been through — the best way to honor them — is through action, including keeping up the fight to end worker exploitation.”

For Su, recognizing the workers was a personal victory. As a then-lead attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California — known before as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center — Su led the legal representation team that exposed and helped free the workers from their abusive employers in 1995. The successful civil case defined her career, and helped push forward future legislation that would bolster labor laws and protect workers.

“The most profound changes are personal,” she said at the ceremony. “Like our honorees, standing up, building power, exercising their rights, and against all odds defying the message they have heard their entire lives: that they should just keep their heads down and know their place.”

Victims shared experiences of being held captive at the El Monte compound for several years — some as long as seven. They had 18-hour work days under tight-knit, strict living conditions; no way to contact family members or receive help.

Connie Chung Joe, the CEO of Advancing Justice, said the workers’ harrowing situation ended during a federal and state-led raid at the compound in 1995.

After that raid, the garment workers — who were brought to the U.S. illegally — were initially at risk of being deported back to Thailand. Advancing Justice, with Su at the helm, stepped in to offer legal services and help them get visas.

A group of Thai sweatshop operators were later indicted for committing involuntary servitude and kidnapping, among other charges, reports said.

The lawsuit win successfully held retailers and manufacturers who used sweatshops accountable — which was unheard of before the El Monte Thai workers’ case, according to Joe. The workers were granted legal residency, and over $4 million was recovered in back wages for the forced labor.

Twenty-eight years later, Clinton, now 54, said she “never imagined” being honored in Washington D.C.

“This means so much to me and my family. We brought the case against the companies; we went to court. I know we worked very hard to stand up here for our rights. We changed the laws,” Clinton said at the ceremony. “I cannot believe I am going to be remembered in history along with my friends.”

Survivors recall slavery-like living conditions
In the early 1990s, 72 immigrant workers were brought to the El Monte compound from Thailand, with the promise that they could pay their visas off. It was a tactic sweatshop employers often used to take advantage of poor foreigners, trapping them into enslaved labor.

But knowing no one in the U.S. — and with no way to escape or let their families know what was really going on — many of the victims could do nothing but what they were told.

Reflecting at the Hall of Honor ceremony, they shared stories of life at the compound, long work days at the crammed clothing factory, and living under 24/7 surveillance. They recalled overcrowded living conditions of at least 10 to a room with no beds, often sleeping on the floor. Some shared details of barbed wire around the complex, and armed guards with batons and knives outside at all times. And they were almost never allowed to leave the compound. They could only communicate with their families through letters, which were screened by their captors.

Nantha Jaknang, who was held at the compound for three years, said food and everyday items were upsold to the workers by their captors — for example, a single watermelon would be $14.

Another worker, Phitsamai Baothong, said the visa she was promised was “completely false” and didn’t have her name or photo on it, but someone else entirely. She worked at the sweatshop for three years to try and pay off her visa, which cost $3,000 — around $6,000 today with inflation.

“They took everything we had,” Baothong said. “Visas, passports, everything.”

Baothong said the garment workers would usually get around $400 per month for their work, with only one day off. Their captors would often take out what they were “owed” for the workers’ visas and food, leaving them sometimes with only half to show for a full month’s work.

Praphaphon Pongpit, who was held at the townhouses from 1993 to 1995, said the experience was “horrible.”

“We just kept working — it was just not a good feeling being there,” she said. “You could never even really go outside.”

Protecting workers from exploitation

Advancing Justice officials called the El Monte Thai workers’ story “a valuable reminder of why continued vigilance and commitment is needed to prevent the horrors they faced from reoccurring.”

The successful lawsuit was described by UCLA Labor Center Director Kent Wong as a national model that can inspire workers across the country.

“At the heart of this case was a group of mainly women, immigrant garment workers who stood up, spoke up and organized for justice,” Wong said.

Due in part to their story, nearly three decades later, both U.S. and California governments have passed a number of labor and immigration laws that protect immigrant workers and survivors from becoming trafficked.

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, passed in 2000, created visas for trafficked victims and established a federal task force on human trafficking.

Other changes in law made after the El Monte workers included the creation of the T visa — which grants legal visas to victims of trafficking, violence and forced labor. No immigration visa existed specifically for survivors of human trafficking prior to the El Monte Thai workers case, officials said.

More recently, SB-62 — the CA Garment Worker Protection Act, which lawmakers passed two years ago in September — establishes that garment workers specifically be paid per hour; no less than minimum wage. It made California the first state to enforce the hourly wages for garment workers; preventing sweatshop-like work that would typically pay workers per piece completed, resulting in often unpaid overtime.

In Los Angeles, near the Thai Town business district, the Thai Community Development Center opened its new facility over the summer to help immigrant laborers from being exploited — inspired by the El Monte case.

At the Hall of Honor induction, elected officials including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, praised the workers for going after their captors.

“It’s only thanks to their resilience and their brilliance, courage and conviction that the so-called ‘land of the free’ learned of modern-day slavery right on our own shores,” Duckworth said. “We are also now forever thankful for how they used that experience to push the country that had so wronged them, to do right by others.”

Officials from the El Monte Police Department were also honored with a congressional recognition, for their work helping to free the victims during the sweatshop raid in 1995.

Police Chief Jake Fisher said he and city officials are working on a memorial — and possibly a plaque — to honor the workers. It would be likely planned for 2025 on the 30-year anniversary of the case, Fisher said.

Revisiting the compound

In late September, Maliwan Clinton and Phitsamai Baothong, who are friends, went back to the El Monte compound where they were held captive. It was their first time back in 28 years.

The yellow row of townhouse units where they lived and worked now looks unassuming — just another block of residential housing in the crowded suburban city. No wooden boards over the windows. No armed guards. No barbed wire surrounding the building.

Both women were shocked at how “normal” the townhomes, with so much traumatic history, looked now. Baothong said she recognized the unit where she lived and worked “immediately, even with time.” The two reminisced on what the years there held.

“There are a lot of bad memories,” said an emotional Baothong, 54, who now lives in San Pedro.

Clinton — who now works and lives in Hawthorne — remembered the units were labeled A through G, and that she stayed in unit D. She said she could close her eyes and picture the sweatshop compound as if it were yesterday.

The building’s exteriors looked “totally different” — but also “how they’re supposed to,” she said. “It’s just a normal place where people live now.”

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