Most Americans have read those harrowing Third World stories of modern-day peonage and exploitation. Poor families pay a labor “contractor” to take a relative to a city for what is purported to be a good job. The victim winds up a prostitute in Bangkok or virtually imprisoned as a domestic in Kuwait.
Few Americans, however, would imagine such quasi-slavery existing in their own nation. On Wednesday, federal and state authorities provided a glimpse into an ugly side of immigrant life by raiding an illegal garment factory in a residential area in El Monte, just a few miles east of the glassy towers of Downtown Los Angeles. They found 63 Thai immigrants, presumably illegal. They were working and living in an apartment complex enclosed by barbed wire--not to keep intruders out but to keep the workers in.
The workers said they were forced to toil for an average of 84 hours a week at the slave wage of $1.60 an hour--supposedly to pay off the debt incurred by transporting them here from Thailand. Many were confined long after the debt was paid off, living in tiny rooms with sleeping mats and forced to buy food from those who confined them. One woman said she had not left the complex for more than two years. The operators face numerous charges, including extortion, kidnaping, involuntary servitude and harboring illegal aliens.
Although authorities say cases like that in El Monte are rare, there have been cases of slavery-like exploitation of Mexican laborers in California. Most notable is the notorious case of Edwin M. Ives, the Ventura County flower grower who pleaded guilty to racketeering, labor and immigration charges and paid $1.5 million to 200 former workers he had smuggled from Mexico.
Just walking through the garment districts of Downtown Los Angeles or lower Manhattan suggests that the sweatshop-like conditions of an earlier era have not disappeared without a trace. While outright slavery is probably rare, immigrants ignorant of the law or fearful of claiming their rights still face exploitation. Low-paying jobs in the garment, food, restaurant and other industries have been the traditional route of immigrants to the good life of America. These people play an important role in our economy, and many immigrants remain in hazardous or poorly paid jobs because of social or economic forces, not because of coercion.
All of this puts the authorities in a difficult position. The Immigration and Naturalization Service says that it had suspicions about the El Monte sweatshop but was unable to act until a worker escaped through an air-conditioning duct six weeks ago. More vigilance is needed.