As one of eight children in a poor northern Thai family, Rungthiwa McAllister had two visions of her future: In one, she was bent over in a rice paddy under the blistering sun, standing ankle-deep in mud from dawn until dusk to eke out a meager living, just as her parents did. In the other, she was a glamorous airline hostess jetting off to exotic places.
Neither scenario came true. Instead, she wound up as a seamstress in a Southern California operation in which workers labored in conditions of virtual slavery. She escaped from the El Monte facility last year--long before the sweatshop was raided by authorities and became notorious worldwide for its grim conditions in the middle of the Los Angeles suburb.
Although Rungthiwa--now married to glass cutter Bob McAllister and settled in New England--considers herself lucky, the ordeal for her and her fellow workers is far from over.
Besides the 72 Thais whom authorities rescued in early August from the El Monte factory, 14 other former workers now living in Bangkok have stepped forward to claim unpaid back wages from the operators of the facility.
Some have received telephone threats for coming forward here.
Rungthiwa, briefly reunited with her El Monte friends in a recent stopover in Bangkok, said she cannot rest until two fugitive sons of the El Monte facility's owners are arrested.
"These people have a history of tracking families and threatening them," Bob McAllister said of the fugitives. U.S. authorities are seeking Sukit (Sang) Manasurangkul, also known as Sunchai, in connection with the El Monte case. They also want to question his brother, Chavalet (Lek) Manasurangkul, about the operation.
Recently, Sukit reportedly telephoned Boonlong Changruankul--a former El Monte worker now in Thailand who is seeking back wages--and told her: "You have talked to the newspapers. Beware." Boonlong said the call left her thoroughly shaken.
Sukit has also threatened other workers by phone, said Mayuree Phakdurong, who with her lawyer husband, Thongbai Thongpao, is representing the 14 workers in Bangkok. Rungthiwa McAllister is being represented by attorneys in California as part of a lawsuit filed against plant operators.
Mayuree knows of at least four other former El Monte workers who have settled in Bangkok. She said they dare not join the group in seeking back wages because they fear that they or their families will be harmed or that their homes will be burned.
In Thailand, criminals have been known to kill for as little as 500 baht, or $20. When revenge is that cheap, intimidation can be a powerful tool.
"I will feel better if Sunchai is arrested," said Kanang Nonthatkomjan, 36, another former El Monte worker.
When told of the reported Bangkok threats, Michael Gennaco of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said, "If there are potential witnesses who are being threatened, we'll be investigating." He said federal prosecutors are interested in what the workers in Bangkok have to say because their statements may further bolster criminal prosecutions of nine people--including Sukit--indicted in the El Monte case.
Lawyer Mayuree said her clients suspect that the two fugitives may be in Chonburi, a town an hour's drive southeast of Bangkok.
Mayuree and Thongbai say they have contacted legal colleagues in Los Angeles to file civil lawsuits seeking compensation for the 14 El Monte workers in Bangkok. The lawyers say they have reviewed the workers' airline tickets, pay receipts and photos of them at the El Monte plant.
The Thai attorneys have arranged for their clients to be interviewed in Bangkok by Randall Grimes, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officer, who will forward his report to authorities in Los Angeles.
"We are solely interested in the smuggling angle," Grimes said. "As far as the compensation, that's outside of what we do."
The back wages due could be substantial. Some of the 14 workers toiled for up to 17 hours a day for as long as seven years--but for as little as $1.40 an hour. Among the 14 who returned to Bangkok, several said they told plant owners that they needed medical treatment in Thailand and others called it quits after paying off their passage to the United States.
INS official Grimes, speaking of the former workers now in Thailand, said, "While I feel sorry for them for what happened, some responsibility lies with them for being willing to engage in this. These people are victims, but they are victims because they were willing to make false representations to consulate officials. It doesn't justify slavery, but they have to take some responsibility."
But Thongbai noted that the workers, like many of Thailand's poor, are unsophisticated, and, at most, possess the equivalent of a sixth-grade education.
Booma Khoomtuen said visas and passports were alien to him before the Southern California odyssey. The 37-year-old tailor, with a fourth-grade education, said he had no concept of where to begin to apply for permission to go overseas. That partly explains why he and other workers were willing to pay a recruiter's $4,000 to $5,000 "passage" fee, which supposedly covered expenses for passports, visas and air tickets.
The most tantalizing lure for the workers was the promise of high pay, often 10 or more times what they could earn in Thailand. It was an offer that proved irresistible.
The clincher for Booma and his wife was hearing that they could earn $4,000 a month in El Monte. They left their two young children in the care of grandparents to search for their fortune overseas.
Rungthiwa McAllister, who was laboring to make ends meet on the $120 a month she made as a Bangkok seamstress, found it hard to say no when a smooth-talking recruiter said that in El Monte she could earn as much as $1,600 a month. The recruiter had introduced himself as a friend of Lumpa, also a daughter-in-law of the owner of the El Monte facility. Rungthiwa said she had met Lumpa while a garment worker on Saipan Island in the South Pacific. The promised pay in El Monte was 60% more than what she had earned on Saipan.
Recruiters also urged women to get friends to join them. Kanang went to El Monte partly because a friend named Wisan had painted a rosy picture of $1,200-a-month salaries and the freedom to visit temples and tour the Southland on her days off.
It wasn't until Kanang and Rungthiwa got to Los Angeles and were told to "hurry, hurry" into a van at the airport and "hurry, hurry" into the El Monte building that they realized something was amiss.