Nearly two dozen of the 72 Thai garment workers who toiled in alleged prison-like conditions in an El Monte sweatshop finally tasted freedom Friday--in some cases years after they began their ordeal.
In all, 21 of the 72 ex-workers--all suspected illegal immigrants--were set free from federal custody after bonds of $500 per person were posted. Authorities said that most if not all of the Thai nationals picked up in the raid on the El Monte site should be free by early next week, once processing is complete.
A federal source indicated that all 72 might be released by late Friday or early today.
It was an emotional moment shortly before 5 p.m. as the 21 proceeded up a ramp leading from the basement parking garage of the Federal Building in Downtown Los Angeles. Some smiled and waved but others wore grim expressions and choked back tears as they walked without comment through a phalanx of journalists and television cameras. They boarded a yellow school bus that community groups had rented to take them to temporary housing.
As the cameras clicked and whirred, community representatives said the workers’ release was only the first step on a long road. “Their freedom today is only the beginning,” said Julie Su, an attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which has been assisting the Thai nationals and is among those helping them to find lodging and jobs.
Even as the workers were being freed, investigators seeking the identity of purchasers of garments manufactured at the El Monte site were busily reviewing ledgers, labels, canceled checks and assorted paperwork seized from the facility and another garment factory near Downtown Los Angeles.
California Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw said Friday that state investigators would be seeking information from yet another major retail chain--Miller’s Outpost--in connection with clothing manufactured at the El Monte site. Authorities have already subpoenaed documents from Mervyn’s, and on Thursday, Montgomery Ward--the nation’s largest privately held retail chain--said it had unwittingly purchased boys clothing that may have been manufactured at the El Monte complex.
Fred Ford, senior vice president of Hub Distributing, which owns Miller’s Outpost, said, “As far as we know, we have not” bought clothing produced at the El Monte sweatshop.
State and federal labor officials plan a joint announcement next week unveiling subpoenas of up to 20 other firms that may have bought the sweatshop-produced garments, said John Duncan, chief deputy director of the California Department of Industrial Relations.
In another development, a South El Monte building inspector said Friday that U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials never contacted him back in 1992, when the INS closed its initial investigation--a decision that has prompted sharp criticism of the agency. State authorities have already denied receiving any referral from the INS, so the official’s comment leaves the INS without corroboration of its contention that the matter was referred by telephone to state and local authorities.
INS officials concede that agency procedures call for such referrals to be noted in writing in the case file, a process that was not followed here.
Many, if not all, of the 72 Thai nationals--67 women and five men--are expected to serve as witnesses in the federal prosecution of the sweatshop overseers, eight of whom have already been charged with harboring or transporting illegal immigrants. Prosecutors may add other charges, including peonage and conspiracy, and investigators are still seeking other principals and smugglers believed to be linked to the operation.
Once released Friday afternoon, the former factory workers left for the church where members of the Thai community had arranged lodging for the night. They also visited the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood, a religious and cultural center where members of the area’s Thai community had gathered to greet them.
The 18 women and three men knelt and bowed their heads reverently as saffron-robed Buddhist monks blessed them, chanting sutras by a lavish altar backed by a room-sized golden Buddha statue. The workers grinned and hugged each other joyously as they filed out the temple hall for a banquet of Thai cuisine.
Aroon Seeboonruang, chairman of the Thai Assn. of Southern California, stopped a cluster of women and asked how they felt about their new freedom.
“We’re happy!” they said in unison as they turned, displaying broad grins that suggested both excitement and relief.
Their release followed lengthy negotiations involving federal officials, defense lawyers, Thai community representatives and labor leaders. Volunteer groups have agreed to sponsor the former factory hands and provide them with housing. Thai community and labor groups, assisted by the Thai Consulate, helped raise the funds to post the bond, representatives said.
The release on Friday came nine days after a multi-agency task force swooped down on the El Monte sweatshop complex, an action that exposed slavery-like conditions that have shocked the nation.
The 72 immigrant laborers were immediately taken into federal custody after the raid Aug. 2. The INS agreed Friday to their release, and said all would be able to work as long as their presence is needed for the prosecution of the alleged sweatshop operators.
However, all 72 Thai nationals will most likely face deportation proceedings once their testimony is no longer needed. Behind their presence, authorities suspect, is a sophisticated smuggling and forced-labor ring that recruited the workers in Thailand, provided them with false immigration documents and promptly dispatched them to El Monte, where they were kept in debt servitude and threatened with beatings if they attempted to escape.
Apparel firms that purchased garments from the El Monte complex--an unlicensed facility--could be held legally liable for wage violations and may be required to help cover up to $5 million in back pay that is due the workers, authorities said.
As state officials focused on the role of retail outlets, federal investigators were scrutinizing the business of a half-dozen or so Los Angeles-based garment distributors and manufacturers that may have purchased goods produced at the El Monte site for resale to retailers nationwide.
Steven Katz, vice president of L.F. Sportswear--one of the Los Angeles firms contacted by federal labor officials--described his company Friday as a “victim” of the situation. “We’re doing everything in our power to get to the bottom of it,” said Katz, who declined further comment.
Another Los Angeles clothing concern, New Boys, denied Friday that it had ever purchased clothing from an unregistered manufacturer, and declared that its officials knew nothing of any sweatshop labor. One of New Boys’ retail customers, Montgomery Ward, the Chicago-based retail giant, filed suit this week against New Boys, contending that New Boys was a conduit for boys knit shirts produced at the El Monte facility.
Michael Dave, an attorney for New Boys, said the disputed garments were purchased from D&R; Fashion, which he described as a licensed apparel firm in Los Angeles. Federal and state authorities suspect that the D&R; site on West 12th Place just west of Downtown--which investigators raided on the same day as the raid on the El Monte facility--served as a finishing site and front for the unlicensed El Monte sweatshop.
Moreover, Bradshaw said, D&R;'s license expired in March. A federal source said investigators have detailed more than $300,000 in checks from New Boys to D&R; between June 16 and July 28.
On another front, interviews with city employees in El Monte and South El Monte shed new light on the question of how the sweatshop had been allowed to operate with impunity for so long.
Records have indicated that, as early as the spring of 1992, INS officials suspected there was a sweatshop in the two-story apartment building on Santa Anita Avenue. INS officials have said, however, that their investigation that year hit a brick wall when the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles determined that they lacked sufficient evidence to obtain a search warrant.
Without the warrant, the INS has said, it was forced to close the case. INS officials have contended that they then called state labor officials and a local building code enforcement officer and notified them of the bootleg factory.
But state labor officials have said they have no record or recollection of any such referral. And on Friday, the building code officer named by the INS said he could not remember receiving such a call.
INS Agent Richard Kee has said that when he closed the investigation in 1992, he referred the matter to Gil Lopez, who investigates complaints of building code violations for the city of South El Monte. Kee said he chose Lopez because INS officials had worked with him before, even though the complex is within the jurisdiction of neighboring El Monte.
But on Friday, Lopez said he “was not told anything by anyone at the INS” as far as he could recall.
Officials in El Monte likewise said they had no record of an INS referral. However city records do show that, in 1993, the apartment house was visited at least three times by inspectors after the city received a complaint that someone was operating an illegal business in the garage.
El Monte Fire Capt. Kevin Paulson, who filed the complaint Jan. 18, 1993, said he first visited the complex on that date in response to a report of smoke at that address.
Paulson said he suspected a bootleg business the moment his firetruck pulled up to the apartment house. “We got to the driveway, and the only vehicle there was a big bobtail truck,” he said. Paulson said that he and his crew were greeted by two Asian men speaking broken English.
When he told them he needed to investigate a report of smoke in the area, he said, the men tried to persuade him and his crew that there was no problem. The two were hesitant to open the door of a garage from where there appeared to be a light on, the firefighter said.
“Finally I think I said something like, ‘Open the door, now!’ ” Paulson recalled. “They spoke to each other a lot in their native language, and then finally they opened it. And we saw a desk, and I think two or three or four sewing machines, and boxes and bolts of material.”
By that time, Paulson said, the smell of smoke had disappeared, and he left. Later that day, he said, he turned the matter over to the city’s code enforcement unit. In their three subsequent visits, city officials only managed to inspect the garage and did not discover the factory.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.