Workers Held in Near-Slavery, Officials Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State and federal agents raided a garment factory in El Monte early Wednesday that allegedly held dozens of Thai immigrants in virtual slavery behind barbed wire for years, forcing them to labor in servitude to supposedly pay off creditors.

The pre-dawn raid by a multi-agency team headed by the California Department of Industrial Relations discovered more than 60 Thai nationals living and working at a gated apartment complex ringed with barbed wire and spiked fences.

The raid exposed conditions that seemed to belong to an earlier era.

Workers told government agents and The Times that they had been held against their will and that they were forced to toil day and night for less than $2 an hour. Some said they were told they must repay the cost of transporting them from Thailand, yet the detention continued after the "debt" was repaid.

One worker--who provided only her nickname, "Yat"--said she has not been allowed to leave the complex in the 2 1/2 years she has lived there, even though her debt was repaid long ago.

"I don't like it," she said through an interpreter. "But I have to accept it because they paid my way over here."

"I never would have believed a situation like this could exist in the United States, and I hope I never see it again," said California State Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw, who supervised the search and the questioning. "All the agencies involved plan to prosecute to the full extent of the law."

Bradshaw said the investigation was prompted by informants, some of whom had escaped the apartment complex, a two-story, seven-unit structure in a residential area in the 2000 block of Santa Anita Avenue. Investigators said they have been staking out the site for weeks.

State agents blocked the driveway of the complex about 5:30 a.m., forced open a barbed gate and roused the workers from their beds one by one. As each apartment was secured, the inhabitants were brought out, gathered together and ordered to sit on the ground near their apartments.

Translators assured the workers that they would not be punished and that their testimony would be sought for prosecutiotions and kidnaping charges are a possibility."

"The seriousness of the situation seems to indicate that there was mistreatment of workers," Flynn added.

In all, the INS detained 63 people from the El Monte site. They are all being held at detention facilities at the INS district office in Los Angeles.

Bradshaw said investigators discovered more than $750,000 in cash and blocks of gold in a safe at the complex. They also found records indicting the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash to banks, she said.

Investigators at the El Monte site said the immigrants toiled an average of 84 hours a week for an average of $1.60 per hour--far below the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. Some of the workers said ring operators deducted half their pay until they repaid the cost of transportation from Thailand.

State officials said the workers are entitled to potentially thousands of dollars to compensate for the difference between the pay they received and the minimum wage. Cash seized Wednesday may be used for that purpose, Bradshaw said.

Some of the workers said they were virtually imprisoned in the complex.

"They took my passport away and won't let me out," said Vuttiphong Vutthiboompronsak, a 48-year-old man who said he has worked at the compound since entering the United States on a tourist visa four years ago. "I work from 7 [a.m.] to midnight. They make you work."

Speaking through an interpreter, Vutthiboompronsak said ring organizers in Thailand offered him employment in the United States and helped him get a tourist visa from the U.S. Embassy in that country.

Labor Commissioner Bradshaw said investigators have learned that at least two "brokers" in Thailand have been sending Thais to the El Monte-based operation. When settled in El Monte, Bradshaw said, some of the employees were threatened indirectly to induce them to work as they did.

"Some of the employees said there would be retribution against their family in Thailand if they didn't cooperate," she said.

Investigators do not know how long the apartment complex has been operated as a garment-making facility. However, one worker said she has worked for the sweatshop operators for seven years.

It is illegal to produce garments in a residence for safety reasons and because regulators cannot check labor conditions in such an environment. The complex was not registered as a contractor with the Department of Industrial Relations, authorities said.

A document requesting the search warrant said an informant warned authorities "that there is a 24-hour watchman at the said apartment complex watching outside and guarding the workers, who are forced to work long hours without being allowed to leave the premises . . . . He also observed that the glass windows in the second floor were paneled with plywood three-quarters of the way to the top."

State investigators said workers at the apartment complex stitched together garment parts that were probably completed at a Los Angeles shop allegedly associated with the El Monte operation. The shop, located at 1319 W. 12th Place, does business under the name SK Fashion, authorities said.

Simultaneous with the El Monte raid, Los Angeles police and separate teams of state investigators executed a search warrant at the shop and at the Panorama City home of a suspected ring leader.

At the Panorama City site, a single-family home on a quiet cul de sac, authorities said an illegal garment-sewing operation was being operated in a back room. Although investigators found no direct links to the El Monte operation, they turned up a variety of alleged record-keeping and workers' compensation insurance violations.

The owner, identified as Choosri Kongphetsak, was fined $11,150. In addition, INS agents took four of the garment shop's employees into custody on suspected immigration violations.

In El Monte, investigators found reams of cut and sewn fabric inside a truck at the complex. Fabric, garments and dozens of sewing machines were also inside the apartment units.

In addition, investigators found labels of numerous brand-name apparel lines in at least one apartment unit. Investigators said they don't yet know whether the complex operators served as contractors for those brand-name companies. The Southland has a burgeoning business in bogus merchandise, and the labels could be counterfeits, investigators said.

Investigators said the complex operators apparently generated revenue by selling workers much of the food they consumed. A garage was stocked with shelves of food and sundries such as sardines, sugar, canned milk, onions, and soap.

Also, workers at the El Monte complex said they were required to use coin-operated washing machines for their laundry needs.

Many workers at the El Monte site said they pooled their money to buy food. Many said they gave most of their remaining money to the managers of the complex who promised to send those funds to the workers' families in Thailand.

Workers said they were not charged for their cramped living accommodations.

Vuttiphong Vutthiboompronsak showed investigators a closet-like area measuring about 7 feet by 4 feet where he said he slept on a blanket on the floor under a stairwell, located near sewing equipment in a workroom.

Upstairs in the same apartment unit, there were seven sleeping mats in one small bedroom, four in another and three in yet another.

Some workers seemed resigned to their situation. For example, Weng Kunsar said she has been living in cramped conditions for seven years.

"I don't feel anything," she said when asked to comment on her situation. "I just feel numb."

Another worker who said she has toiled at the El Monte site for three years said she repaid her $5,000 travel debt during her first year at the complex. She said she is paid $500 to $600 per month.

The well-organized, longstanding peonage apparently exposed in the El Monte case is rare, state labor officials said. Somewhat more common are reports of perhaps one or two immigrant workers, particularly in the garment industry, who say they are being held against their will but whose claims cannot always be verified, officials said.

While authorities say large-scale cases of involuntary servitude remain extremely rare, the El Monte raid evoked memories of brutal abuses that took place at the Ventura County flower ranch of Edwin M. Ives during the late 1980s.

Ives gained notoriety in 1990 when prosecutors charged him in what they described at the time as the most far-reaching slavery case in the United States in recent times.

Although the slavery charge later was dropped, Ives pleaded guilty to corporate racketeering and labor and immigration violations in connection with smuggling illegal immigrants into his compound and paying them sub-minimum wages. In all, he paid $1.5 million to more than 200 former workers, the largest penalty ever levied in a U.S. immigration case.

In the El Monte case, investigators on Wednesday tallied up $492,800 in violations stemming from record-keeping violations and failure to pay workers' compensation and the minimum wage.

The El Monte site was uncovered by a multi-agency group of about 30 people, including translators and officials from the state Industrial Relations Department, the U.S. Labor Department, the Los Angeles city attorney's office, El Monte police and the California Employment Development Department.

Among those trying to console workers at the apartment complex early Wednesday was Chanchanit Hirunpidok, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Thai Community Development Center. She was moved to tears when commenting on the scene.

"It's disgusting," she said. "It's unfortunate workers are willing to put up with conditions like this. We have to set an example to prevent this from happening again."

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this story.

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