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Sweatshop Case Dismays Few in Thailand : Southeast Asia: El Monte raid is front-page news. But officials say allegations about working conditions will actually encourage immigration.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This month’s raid on a makeshift El Monte factory where 72 Thai nationals allegedly labored in near-slavery has aroused great attention in Thailand, but not in the way Americans might think.

Far from deterring illegal Thai immigration into the United States, government officials and social activists say, the Aug. 2 raid on the garment factory--and the blurred images left by media here--will spur others to try to come.

“It sounds pretty good to Thai people to stay in a room with a spring bed, instead of a mat, and with air conditioning,” said Charturon Attawiparkpaisan of Thailand’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, who clearly confused television pictures of the freed workers in federal detention with life in the alleged sweatshop itself.

“And the wages--about a dollar and a half an hour. They worked about 10 hours a day, and get about $15. That’s pretty good by Thai standards,” said Attawiparkpaisan, whose job is to approve the applications of Thais who want to work overseas. But in many cases, U.S. investigators allege, wages were as little as 69 cents an hour, and workdays stretched to 22 hours.

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The El Monte case has received front-page treatment in the Bangkok press, but many officials here seem unconcerned about it. A police investigation into the Thai end of the operation has gone nowhere.

As for the Thai capital’s garment workers, “most I’ve talked to still want to go [to America],” Jaded Chouwilai, an activist with the non-governmental Friends of Women Foundation, said last week. “They don’t believe things are that bad.”

One worker still interested in immigrating, legally or otherwise, is Wirat Tasago, 24, who earns the equivalent of about $1.50 for each pair of made-to-order pants he sews for tailor shops in Bangkok. Six days a week, he toils from 8 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m.

On days when the tailors don’t have customers, the wiry sewing-machine operator doesn’t get paid. After 10 years of such labor, Tasago, a migrant from Udon Thani in northeastern Thailand, wants a better life for himself, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter.

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“If anybody in America wants a worker, let him come to me. I’ll go. I don’t like working here,” he said.

However, at another Bangkok garment factory no bigger than a one-car garage, none of the dozen young women who work 16 hours a day, six days a week, stitching cotton shirts for export to Africa echoed Tasago’s desire.

“I don’t want to go to the United States. I’m afraid I’d get cheated,” said Sujari, 22.

U.S. investigators have said that the Thai nationals in El Monte were held captive in the wire-ringed building on the 2000 block of Santa Anita Avenue and forced to stitch garments for an average of 84 hours a week. Some were allegedly held against their will for seven years.

In American legal terms, that is peonage--and a crime. But the difference between peonage and the low pay, poor conditions and exploitation that are the daily lot of many who toil in the Thai garment industry may seem largely a matter of semantics.

On July 1, the minimum daily wage for workers in the Bangkok area was raised to 145 baht, the equivalent of $6.07. But many of the more than 1.2 million women employed in the textile and clothing industry make far less.

Despite the country’s labor laws, many workers in Bangkok sweatshops are paid as little as 80 baht, or $3.35, for a working day that can last 16 hours, according to the Friends of Women Foundation, a 15-year-old organization.

The women, many of them poor and illiterate migrants from Thailand’s northeast, frequently live in cramped dormitories, with up to 15 sleeping in a room only 13 feet square. They share their bunk beds with workers from other shifts. The hot, dim workshops may be filled with choking cotton dust or toxic fumes emitted by dyes.

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The women are free to come and go when not at their machines--at least in theory.

“Officially, they can have Sunday off, but when they have many orders, the owner will force them to work,” Chouwilai said.

With such conditions at home, cracking the Bangkok end of the ring that smuggled the 67 female seamstresses and five male sewing-machine technicians into the United States does not appear to be an urgent matter.

“It’s not a priority. It’s only something on the news,” Attawiparkpaisan said.

A full three weeks after the El Monte raid, Thai officials had not yet contacted the Bangkok office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is trying to choke off underground and fraudulent travel to the United States at the source.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy said Thai authorities have not made inquiries on how the El Monte workers obtained fraudulent visas.

“I’m not aware that outside the Foreign Ministry there’s much concern about it, and inside the Foreign Ministry the problem seemed to evaporate when they [the captive workers] were let out on bail,” one U.S. diplomat said, speaking on condition that he not be identified.

Even the director of the Foreign Ministry’s office in charge of safeguarding the interests of Thais overseas seemed unfazed by what allegedly happened in El Monte.

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“Things happen when skilled workers--and it has to be skilled workers--are found by agencies and persuaded to go to work in the U.S.,” said Iyom Wattummawoot, director of the Office for the Protection of Thai Nationals Abroad. “After going, one or two of them made telephone calls and said they were satisfied. Some even stayed for more than four years.

“To remain in a small place like that was not quite a big deal for them, but since it violates U.S. law, it’s become a story.”

Two branches of the Thai police, the crime-suppression unit and the foreign affairs division, were ordered to probe the Thai end of the worker-smuggling ring after being informed of the El Monte raid through Interpol. But as of last week, the investigation appeared to be dead in the water.

One of the suspected recruiters of the El Monte employees has recently been in Bangkok, but police here say they can’t find him.

“We have his name, we have his address, but he’s gone,” police spokesman Pairat Pongcharoen said Friday. “The case just stopped there. We cannot find the guy.”

On Monday, eight other Thais pleaded innocent before a U.S. magistrate in Los Angeles to charges of concealing and harboring illegal immigrants. If found guilty, each faces five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000--penalties that could be stiffened if charges involving peonage and involuntary servitude are added.

After being detained by federal authorities, the El Monte workers were released and granted temporary work permits so they can support themselves until serving as material witnesses in the trial of their jailers. After the trial, they are supposed to be deported back to Thailand.

Reports of that development have been twisted here in Bangkok and may only encourage other Thais to take a chance on trying to get to America, even if they wind up in a sweatshop.

“As far as I know, America will give these people [the El Monte workers] a green card. Oh, that will be a big problem,” Attawiparkpaisan said. “Everyone will want to go to the U.S. and suffer for three years and get a green card. Now there will be more agencies that want to organize the same thing, to take people to the U.S. If the news spreads all over, what will happen?”


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