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20 Years Later, Thai Ex-Sweatshop Workers Reflect on Freedom From Slavery

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The working conditions of the El Monte sweatshop operation in 1995, following a raid by state and federal agencies. | Photo: Philip Bonner

Be it job security, wages, benefits, workplace morale, or relations with their superiors or co-workers, over half of employed Americans hate their jobs.

But imagine a job where you not only work long, arduous hours, seven days a week but also where the scant wages of your paycheck go back to your employer. Imagine a job where you are not permitted to leave, even if you wanted to. Those were the precisely the kind of conditions Bunta Boonprasit worked in for three years of her life.

Boonprasit, 54, was one of 72 laborers from Thailand who toiled in slave-like captivity inside an El Monte garment sweatshop. Twenty years ago this month, she and the other workers were freed in an early morning, multi-agency raid on the townhouse compound. This event opened the eyes of many Americans to how such severe labor exploitation and human rights violations could thrive in the suburban shadows of the Land of the Free.

Her story began in 1992, when a friend who had worked in the U.S. had informed Boonprasit -who was still living in her native Thailand and worked in a Bangkok garment factory- about an opportunity to sew clothing in the States. Boonprasit was interested, and her friend set up a meeting with the hiring contractor.

Boonprasit and others interested in the venture met in a Bangkok hotel with the recruiters who told her that if they applied for a work visa through the U.S.' formal system, they would probably not be granted one. However, there was "another way" to work in the U.S.

They were instructed to create a false passport using their own photo, with another person's name and information. The workers at the time didn't have any qualms, and assumed it was the way things were done.

"I didn't think there was anything wrong, they guaranteed nothing bad would happen," Boonprasit said through an interpreter.

With the false passports, the group of laborers were granted tourist visas and were given tickets to be included in a legitimate tour group, which first landed in Hawaii, and visited the popular attractions of The Aloha State, just as any tour group would. Except that the laborers were escorted by a woman from the employment operation that was charged with monitoring their every move.

The moment Boonprasit arrived at LAX on August 3, 1992, they had literally left paradise behind. Her new employers took away their passports and the spending cash for show that they were given to pose as tourists, and were all told that they were to pay off a debt of 120,000 Thai Bhat (roughly $5,000 in 1995) to pay for their trip to the U.S. These expenses would be deducted from their wages.

Razor wire surrounds the townhouse compound in El Monte where 72 Thai laborers were held captive in 1995. | Photo: Philip Bonner
Razor wire surrounds the townhouse compound in El Monte where 72 Thai laborers were held captive in 1995. | Photo: Philip Bonner, 

Without hesitation, they were transported directly to their new "home" and place of employment: a townhouse compound on Santa Anita Avenue in El Monte, ringed with razor wire and monitored by armed guards. They were forced to work 84 hours a week, from early morning to midnight, for about $1.60 an hour, sewing clothes that would later appear in racks at stores like Macy's or Mervyns. When they were not working, they were sleeping on blankets on the floors of their cluttered, overcrowded dorm-style rooms. They were forced to pay their employers for their food, and even to use the laundry machines to wash their own clothes.

"I didn't know anything was wrong until I arrived [in El Monte]," said Boonprasit. "It wasn't a factory, like I thought it would be, it was just a garage in a home. I had worked in garment factories, I knew what to expect in a factory."

All correspondence with their family back home was heavily monitored and censored. Most of all, they were not allowed to leave the compound. If they failed to comply with the rules, they were told that their families back in Thailand would be threatened with harm.

Despite the harsh conditions, escaping the compound had not crossed the minds of most of the workers.

A photo taken following the August 1995 raid of the El Monte sweatshop operation depicting the typical living conditions of the 72 Thai laborers. | Photo: Philip Bonner
A photo taken following the August 1995 raid of the El Monte sweatshop operation depicting the typical living conditions of the 72 Thai laborers. | Photo: Philip Bonner

"We wouldn't know where to go, we didn't speak English, we still had such a high debt to pay off," said Boonprasit.

But at least one of the laborers was able to escape, who later found employment in a garment factory, which was undergoing a routine inspection by the California Labor Commission at the time. One of the Thai employees at the factory told a Labor Commissioner about a co-worker of his who had escaped from an illegal sweatshop operation in El Monte.

After months of investigation and surveillance, state and federal authorities raided the compound during the early morning hours of August 2, 1995.

The labor commissioner asked Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center to help monitor the raid.

"I was not surprised when I learned of this operation," said Martorell. "I had always known that there was rampant abuse and exploitation occurring in various Thai-owned factories and workplaces where the workers are also Thai. It would be just a matter of time before the underground ones are discovered."

Two decades later, the laborers still recall the raid vividly.

Bunta Boonprasit (left) and Kitcha Phimonsing (right) reflect on their experience being held captive in an El Monte garment sweatshop 20 years ago. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

"There were helicopters shining lights outside at around 1 or 2 a.m.," said Kitcha Phimonsing, 59, who had also been held captive in the sweatshop compound. "At around 5 a.m., a police officer came to the door, we were all afraid. No one dared to open the door. Then they broke the door down. We were all scared and confused."

The laborers were rounded up and brought outside the confines of the compound for the first time as the morning sun rose. Some of them had not been beyond the razor-wire fences in as many as seven years.

After the raid, they were detained for a few days at the Immigration and Naturalization Service's facilities in Downtown L.A. and Terminal Island. Martorell and her nonprofit's staff were on hand to provide not just aid but moral and emotional support for the laborers, who were only then starting to realize that their captors had violated the law.

Following their release by immigration authorities, the laborers found temporary housing at various partnering shelters around Southern California. Boonprasit stayed at a church in Tujunga. Phimonsing roomed at a residence of a Thai family in the San Gabriel Valley.

In the summer of 1995, I also had a personal connection to the El Monte Thai laborers. I was working part-time at a Filipino nonprofit agency in Historic Filipinotown that ran a transitional housing shelter where nearly a dozen of the laborers stayed. Some of my fellow co-workers and I accompanied the laborers on field trips to places like Griffith Park and Universal CityWalk that Martorell and Thai Community Development Center organized to help get them acclimated to life in America.

From the laborers, we learned that the The El Monte sweatshop was headed by a woman named "Auntie" Suni Manasurangkun, a grandmother who ran the slave labor operation with five of her sons. They, along with two security guards who worked for them, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights offenses in February, 1996 and were sentenced to up to seven years in federal prison. After serving their time, all of them have since been deported to Thailand.

The 72 laborers were all given legitimate work visas, and later won a monetary settlement. Most of them found jobs at other garment factories. Boonprasit later worked at an actual garment factory on Soto Street in Boyle Heights. But it was difficult for some to find jobs, as some of them were turned down for employment by certain factories specifically because they were involved in the El Monte case. News of the sweatshop had made headlines not just in Southern California but on both sides of the Pacific, as it had also caused a rift in the Thai community in the US and abroad, with some in the community sympathizing with and defending the Manasurangkun family and their operation. Phimonsing said that her subsequent garment factory job wasn't that much better than in El Monte, with similar cramped living conditions -- but they were at least given the freedom to leave the premises.

The working conditions of the El Monte sweatshop operation in 1995, following a raid by state and federal agencies. | Photo: Philip Bonner
The working conditions of the El Monte sweatshop operation in 1995, following a raid by state and federal agencies. | Photo: Philip Bonner.

The El Monte workers have since moved on to bigger and better things -- some of them have married and started families, others had become small business owners -- one of whom runs a popular Thai restaurant in the North Hollywood area.

In 2004, both Boonprasit and Phimonsing attended local trade schools to learn massage therapy, and they have both since left the garment industry behind and currently work at Thai massage spas. They also each became United States citizens in 2008.

Coming from a shared traumatic experience, the laborers have bonded with each other, and still keep in touch. "We are all friends," said Boonprasit. "Whenever any of us holds a party or a ceremony, we invite each other."

Her experiences with the complexities of the U.S. immigration system taught Boonprasit about the harsh realities of coming to the States. When she had the opportunity to sponsor her relatives in Thailand to immigrate to America, she passed it up.

"All my relatives wanted to come to US. I told them not to come," she said. I would have to spend a lot of money, they didn't speak English, and I didn't know what kind of jobs they would be able to find."

The experience had also made the laborers wiser to labor exploitation, which still goes on in various forms to this day. "Slavery and trafficking continue to be the greatest and fastest growing threat to human rights throughout the world. And yet, this pernicious problem continues to grow unabated," says Martorell

When asked what she would tell other immigrants lured by the same circumstances that brought her here, Boonprasit offered some cautious advice: "Take a good look at the offer. Is it true? Don't just take a good look, research it a little bit," Boonprasit said. "Because if you come right now to America, there's not that many jobs [available]. It's hard to find a job. Even Americans don't have jobs."

The El Monte case not only brought modern-day slavery and immigrant labor exploitation to public light, but it also galvanized activists in their effort to spread awareness and fight it. An organization called C.A.S.T. (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) was founded in 1998 in response to the El Monte sweatshop, and even the Thai Community Development Center had shifted from its original mission as a service provider agency to an organization focused on activism, advocacy and empowerment, which includes fighting slavery and trafficking. Last year, their involvement in a federal labor case contributed to a California-based labor contractor being found liable for discrimination and abuse against several hundred Thai workers in Hawaii. The organization commemorated the 20th anniversary of the El Monte sweatshop case with a series of events reflecting on the laborers' experiences, and current-day issues of slavery, trafficking and exploitation. A commemorative "Survivors Quilt" will be on display at the center throughout the month of August.

However, despite these efforts, slavery and trafficking continue to persist, both worldwide, and perhaps even in our own backyards.

"Extraordinary profits are reaped from slavery produced goods and consumers are happy when they pay less. Unless consumers become more conscious about where their goods come from and how they are made and until corporations assume some social responsibility and understand that their profits are at the expense of the preservation of a civil society which will undermine their profits should civil society breaks down, I'm afraid this scourge on humanity will only continue to no end," said Martorell.

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