Seven months after they were freed from an El Monte sweatshop, 72 Thai workers are to receive more than $1 million in back wages--most of it confiscated from the garment factory where they toiled under slave-like conditions.
The checks--aimed at helping the workers rebuild their lives--are to be passed out today in a ceremony at the Ronald Reagan State Building downtown.
"This is a chance to bring to a close one of the sorriest incidents in labor history," said Jose Millan, assistant state labor commissioner. "We've learned that the unthinkable can occur. But the ceremony and the payments should give hope to any other workers being held in similar conditions. . . . It's evidence that people held in captivity can retain their dignity and go on with their lives."
Most of the money is from a pool of hundreds of thousands of dollars confiscated from the sweatshop, an apartment house ringed with barbed wire where the workers toiled up to 22 hours a day, seven days a week, for less than $1 an hour.
More than $200,000 is from five clothing manufacturers who purchased garments from the sweatshop operators. The manufacturers paid into a fund as part of an out-of-court settlement of alleged violations of a state law that holds manufacturers liable for labor violations by unlicensed suppliers.
Lawyers for the workers--67 women and 5 men, all now living in the Los Angeles area and employed in legal, near-minimum-wage garment industry jobs--have agreed to those settlements. Two other manufacturers recently settled lawsuits with the state, but most of the workers have not agreed to the state deals and plan to pursue litigation.
State investigators say the workers are actually owed more than $5 million in back wages. Those additional wages--as well as alleged damages--are being sought in civil lawsuits filed against at least six other manufacturers and retailers that allegedly bought goods from the sweatshop operators.
The litigation, filed by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center on behalf of most of the El Monte workers, seeks to make those companies liable for false imprisonment as well as labor violations.
"The [other] manufacturers and retailers involved should take no comfort from this because the workers are here to hold them accountable," said Julie Su, a lawyer at the legal center. "The payment [today] closes just one chapter."
Seven of the sweatshop operators--all from Thailand--pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, indentured servitude and harboring illegal immigrants last month. In addition to the El Monte shop, they operated two sewing shops in downtown Los Angeles.
Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this story.