Thai Workers May Soon Get Back Wages

From a Times Staff Writer

More than 70 undocumented Thai immigrants who were allegedly forced to toil in slave-like conditions at an El Monte garment sweatshop until they were freed by government authorities may receive several thousand dollars each in back wages before New Year's Day, state officials said Friday.

Disbursement of the funds is contingent on receipt of a signed agreement from at least one of three Los Angeles garment manufacturing companies--Topson Downs of California, Ms. Tops of California and F-40 California--to withdraw a bankruptcy petition the firms recently filed.

The petition could indefinitely tie up $850,000 in cash and other assets seized by state officials in the raid in August on the barbed-wired complex and a second sweatshop in downtown Los Angeles, according to interim state labor Commissioner Jose Millan.

State officials recently received a civil default judgment in state court allowing them to turn over the cash to the workers, who are material witnesses in a pending federal criminal case against the operators of the sweatshop. The workers, who advocates say have been counting on the money, are each entitled to several thousand dollars of the judgment, according to state officials.

However, the payments fell into jeopardy this month when the three manufacturers, who could also be held jointly liable for back wages, filed court papers saying they were owed money by the sweatshop operators, forcing the operators into involuntary bankruptcy, Millan said.

Late Thursday, Millan said, state officials were informed verbally by an attorney for the firms that they would drop the bankruptcy action. The lawyer, Michael Baum, also verbally agreed to a $275,000 settlement for the firms' share of back wages, he said. "I'd like to believe we'll be able to proceed on the verbal assurances, but frankly we'll need more than that. This money was intended to be paid out to the workers. They earned it."

Neither Baum nor the owners of the firms returned calls for comment.

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