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Garment ‘Slaves’ Facing Ouster : They Describe 17-Hour Days, Broken Promises

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once a year, at a New Year’s celebration, they would be released from the compound in El Monte. Loaded into the backs of trucks that were normally used to haul fabric, they would be transported to a garment shop in Downtown Los Angeles for a New Year’s party. After celebrating whatever they could find to celebrate, they were trucked back to El Monte.

There, for the next 364 days of the year, in an apartment complex with barbed-wire fences and plywood-covered windows, they would work 17 hours daily, sewing together the pieces of cloth that would later hang in clothing stores around the nation.

On Thursday they were free, in a manner of speaking. The more than 60 Thai-born indentured servants who were discovered in a raid by state and federal agents early Wednesday now await possible deportation as illegal aliens--and to learn whether they will get back pay of many thousands of dollars--as they are being held at a federal detention facility on Terminal Island.

As eight suspects were being arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on charges of harboring illegal aliens, their alleged victims spent the day telling federal agents and prosecutors about their experience of servitude in the land of free.

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“Some of the workers will be material witnesses in the case,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “Some may be placed in deportation proceedings. We’ll make decisions on an individual basis.”

Ironically, the managers of the garment factory in El Monte had conducted their own form of deportation before their operation was raided, according to one worker. That account is one of many stories workers related to The Times on Wednesday.

“There are some who tried to escape, but they were caught and sent back to Thailand,” said Vuttiphong Vutthiboompronsak, a 48-year-old man who said he had worked at the compound since entering the United States on a tourist visa four years ago. “I didn’t try to escape because of the guards.”

Speaking through interpreters, the workers said they left impoverished situations in Thailand. Many said they had stitched clothing in their native country. Vutthiboompronsak said one of the El Monte operation’s Thailand-based operators recruited him with promises of a better life in the United States.

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“I was told I could come here and make a lot of money sewing in the United States,” he said.

Another worker known as Yat said she was lured by the same promises. She complained about a demanding supervisor: “The supervisor forces me to work because work is all they think about. If I don’t finish a job, they won’t let me sleep. Sometimes I work from 7 [a.m.] to 2 [a.m.].”

A woman from Samutsakhon, a port city in Thailand, said she worked seven days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight. Like other workers, she said part of the time she put in went to pay off a $5,000 transportation charge.

Weng Kunsar, another worker, said she would sometimes dream of a life outside the barbed wire.

“If I’d had a chance, I would have left for a better-paying job,” she said.

Apparently, workers sought relief from the long hours of labor by drinking. Beer cans were scattered around the complex. Bottles of vodka lined the shelves of a makeshift store in a garage at the complex.

During interviews, some of the workers offered information on the operators of the site. Some said the person in charge of the operation was known simply as “Uncle.” And some accused one man on the scene of being the son of the chief of the El Monte operation.

But on Wednesday, the man denied any such relation. Speaking in English, he said that he was also a worker.

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“I’m paid 10 cents for [sewing] a pocket and 16 cents for a collar,” he said.

But he was among those charged in the case Thursday.

* COSTLY INACTION

INS knew of sweatshop for three years. A1


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