Thai Workers Sue Top Clothing Businesses Over El Monte Plant


Attorneys for 68 Thai garment workers who once toiled in alleged prison-like conditions in El Monte on Wednesday took manufacturers and retailers, including Mervyn's and B.U.M. International, to court, charging that the defendants unlawfully profited from the workers' labor.

The companies were added to a federal complaint filed last month that accused the El Monte plant operators of violating the 13th Amendment prohibition against involuntary servitude and peonage, false imprisonment, racketeering, assault and labor law violations.

"These workers labored over sewing machines in dark garages and poorly lit rooms, making clothes for brand name manufacturers that were then sold in some of the biggest retail stores in America," said Julie Su, a staff attorney at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

The lawyers are seeking $10,000 for each worker for every day they spent in the El Monte factory. Since some of the workers spent up to seven years at the plant, such an amount would add up to many millions of dollars.

Representatives of Mervyn's and B.U.M. International vigorously disputed the charges and said the suit lacked merit.

B.U.M. International Chairman Morton Forshpan and Mervyn's spokeswoman Sandy Salyer said their companies have no record of doing business with those operating the El Monte facility.

Also named in the amended lawsuit are SK Fashions, S & P Fashions, D & R Fashions, Tomato Inc., L.F. Sportswear, Ms. Tops of California, Topson Downs of California, New Boys Inc. and Italian Club of California.

Since their dramatic rescue in August by state and federal authorities, the 72 workers have found work and now live in Los Angeles, said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Center, a nonprofit social service agency that played a key role in helping the workers relocate. Some of the former workers chose not to sue.

Martorell said many continue to suffer from physical and mental ailments. They have been tested for tuberculosis, blurred vision, headaches, back pains and ulcers. But getting them to seek psychological counseling has been difficult because of a cultural stigma, Martorell said.

More than half have returned to jobs in the garment industry while others clean, baby-sit or do other odd jobs for a living.

"Some were so traumatized that they didn't even want to see another sewing machine," Martorell said.

The Thais were allowed to work and remain in the United States because they may be called as witnesses in the federal criminal trial, which is slated for January.

Meanwhile, the Thais are getting a taste of real life in America.

"All the little things we take for granted--such as opening a checking account, getting an ATM card and taking the bus--are new to them," Martorell said.

"It took me an hour the other day just to teach them how to sign their name in English," she said.

On Saturday, they will start their first English class. Next week, they will go to an MTA office to get monthly bus passes.

The workers say they were forced to work in dismal conditions to pay off the cost of their passage to the United States after they were lured to leave their homeland for Los Angeles.

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