Twenty Year Anniversary for Freed Immigrant Sweatshop Workers (Part II)

October 27, 2015 9:20 am
by David Jakeman

Part I of this story told of how Thai workers came to the United States through Hawaii posing as tourists and arrived in El Monte, California, where they were held in a townhouse compound and forced to work to pay off their “debts.” Seasoned immigration attorneys may recall the national news it stirred.

The Thai immigrants found their new home to be quite restrictive, having to work 84 hours a week starting in the early morning and working until midnight. Of course, they were told they had to repay their $5,000 debt, but they were only paid $1.60 an hour. The women sewed clothes that appeared in places like Macy’s and Mervyns. Not surprisingly, their living conditions were cramped, and they slept on blankets on the floors. They were also required to pay for their own food and laundry facilities.

Life Far from Expectations

For many of the Thai immigrants that came through Hawaii, it wasn’t until they arrived to California that they realized there was anything wrong. Far from a professional factory, the clothing shop was a garage in a house. For those who had worked in garment factories before, this came as a real surprise. But letters to and from home were heavily monitored, which made communicating their bad circumstances difficult. To make matters worse, they were told that if they left the compound, their families back home would be hurt.

But a few women did escape, and that’s when this immigration labor scam began to unravel. One of the laborers who escaped found work at a garment factory, which was later inspected by the California Labor Commission. The worker had told another Thai employee about her situation, who then passed the story on to the Labor Commissioner.

Investigation and Freedom

Local, state, and federal officials monitored and investigated the labor practices for several months, and eventually in August 1995, they raided the compound in the early morning. For one Thai community activist, the situation did not come as a huge surprise, having seen signs that such operations were underway.

The rescue was dramatic, with helicopters shining lights down, and police officers breaking down doors and escorting the women outside. The women were held by immigration authorities for some time and then transferred to temporary housing in the southern California area. One Filipino nonprofit agency helped with these efforts. The head of the sweatshop was a woman named Suni Manasurangkun, and she and five of her sons ran the operation. They were convicted of civil-rights offenses, served time in jail, and were then deported back to Thailand.

Traumatic Beginning, Resilient Recovery

While the women had faced a difficult start to their life in the United States, many have gone on to find a successful foothold in the United States. Some have gotten married and started families, while others have started their own small businesses. Others work in Thai massage spas and have received their American citizenship.

Their stories also inspired widespread activism seeking to stamp out slavery and human trafficking in the United States.1 Some Hawaii immigration lawyers have taken part in efforts to stamp out human trafficking over the past few years, the same place where this started for all of these women. It is happy to see these women find a happy ending to such a traumatic start at life in the United States.

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