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Final $1.2 Million Added to Thai Workers’ Settlement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At night, Rojana Cheunchujit slept on a dirty floor with seven other women, among the mice and the cockroaches.

Days were no better. She was paid a pittance for 16 hours of sewing. Trapped by guards and barbed wire, Cheunchujit had little choice or hope of escape.

Authorities eventually freed her and 70 other Thai workers, nearly all women, from years of virtual slavery in an El Monte garment factory.

As the group prepares to celebrate the fourth anniversary of their freedom Aug. 2, their attorneys today will announce a $1.2-million settlement with the last of the clothing firms that hired the factory.

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With the final settlement, the workers will have received $10,000 to $80,000 each, depending on how long they worked--some as long as seven years.

Some have used the money to attend school, put a down payment on a house or start saving for their children’s education. Others have sent the money home to relatives in rural Thai villages.

The settlements alone have not bought them the life they had hoped for in America. They also had to figure out how to use a telephone, read road signs and, beginning with the alphabet, learn English.

Most still work making clothes, sewing six days a week. One has become a nurse. Another is getting a beautician’s license. They have had 15 weddings and 13 babies.

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Through the lengthy process of suing their former bosses, as well as more than half a dozen manufacturers and retailers, they also have learned how laws protect even the most powerless. The El Monte operators were sent to federal prison, and the workers fought to collect years of back pay.

“Their story is an American story,” said Stewart Kwoh, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which filed lawsuits on behalf of the workers and negotiated the settlements, believed to be the largest ever won by sweatshop workers.

“Within the first year of their freedom, they were saying, ‘We’re engaged in this lawsuit and struggle not to punish anybody but to teach corporations that we’re human beings and to ensure that this doesn’t happen again to anybody else,’ ” Kwoh said.

Seven of their Thai captors eventually pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, requiring indentured servitude and harboring illegal immigrants. As part of their plea, the operators acknowledged running their El Monte garment factory from 1989 to 1995 with a captive work force. Two others are fugitives, believed to be in Thailand.

For Cheunchujit and the other Thai workers, the journey from El Monte has been one of transformation. They have become activists, participating in workers rallies, and joined a coalition with Latino colleagues.

Today’s announcement of the $1.2-million settlement with Tomato Inc., the company for which they did the most work, brings their total settlement to more than $4 million. The exact amount cannot be divulged under the agreement, lawyers said. Twenty-two Latino workers also received part of the wage settlements, although they were not held against their will.

The court fight is over, but the Thai workers--mostly in their 20s and 30s--still meet once a month with their attorney, Julie A. Su of the legal center. “We’re like a big family,” Su said.

They feel a sense of belonging to one another and, increasingly, to their new country.

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Perhaps none has been transformed as dramatically as Cheunchujit, who has emerged as the leader. The 28-year-old former seamstress is living a life “I could never even have imagined,” she said.

She met her future husband, USC associate professor Steve Sussman, while asking for directions in a supermarket parking lot. She now lives in Pasadena, studying to become a fashion designer.

She says her dream is to have her own clothing factory--one that pays workers well, provides health benefits and a recreation room, and respects the 40-hour workweek. She also wants a reputation for making quality clothing.

Hers is more than just a Cinderella story. Because her English is better than that of others in the group, Cheunchujit feels duty-bound to speak for them.

Earlier this year, Cheunchujit testified before a state Assembly committee, urging the panel to approve AB 633, which would require manufacturers and retailers to guarantee the wages of garment workers.

“Please pass this law to help us obtain and to enforce humane working conditions,” she told the legislators.

The measure passed the full Assembly last month and was approved July 14 by the Senate Industrial Relations Committee. It will go before the full Senate in September.

“When we were . . . in El Monte, almost everybody had a bad temper because we were trapped,” said Cheunchujit, who still suffers from numb fingers, back pain and periodic depression from her nearly five years of captivity.

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These days, Cheunchujit carries a pager to enable friends to contact her quickly. “I am the only one who has free time,” she said.

The pager went off on a recent day while Cheunchujit was cleaning her house. It was a friend asking for a favor. Of course, she answered, then dashed out the door.

“Before, I would have said, ‘I have to finish cleaning the house first before I can take you,’ ” she said. “I’ve learned not to sweat over small things.”

The Thai workers were lured to Los Angeles by recruiters in Bangkok, where they had gone looking for jobs. They were promised top wages in the United States, and arrived here as tourists. They were met at Los Angeles International Airport and taken directly to the San Gabriel Valley complex where their passports and valuables were confiscated.

The Thai workers still in the United States have been issued special visas provided to witnesses whose testimony for the government could endanger their lives. (Relatives in Thailand received threats, accompanied by pictures of the workers. The workers are now applying for permanent residency.)

Despite their ordeal, workers show no bitterness toward their former captors.

“I forgive them,” said Sutchai Chaisuni, who was among the sickliest of the workers during their confinement.

Within 2 1/2 years of her release, the 25-year-old woman, who had only completed the fifth grade in Thailand, passed a high school equivalency test.

During her 30 months of schooling, Chaisuni could only sleep about four hours a night because she was working at a garment factory by day and attending school at night.

She went to bed with a tape recorder playing her English teacher’s lessons. Each night, she recalled praying, “Dear God, can you help me? This is not my country, this is not my language. Give me my mind to know and to memorize what the teacher has told me.”

She eventually earned a licensed vocational nursing certificate. When her mother heard the news, she exclaimed: “Now, I can die!”

Chaisuni works at a Hollywood convalescent hospital. “I like to help people--especially old people,” she said. Chaisuni sent all of her settlement money home to her mother.

The workers’ world has grown in other ways.

Their contact with their Latino colleagues has given them an appreciation of multiethnic Los Angeles. Bound by their common adversity, the Latino workers who shared in the settlement say that they have been enriched by the Thais. “There is no room for racism between us,” said former worker Pilar Iglesias.

Su, the workers’ attorney, says the experience has changed her too.

For eight months, she met with the workers nightly. Sometimes, it took 90 minutes just to coordinate rides to the meeting, held usually at the legal center’s downtown office.

Su recruited volunteers to teach English to the workers. She took them to doctors and dentists, and helped in finding jobs and apartments. She enlisted Century City attorney Ekwan E. Rhow, a Harvard Law School classmate, to assist on the case for free.

“I never imagined I would feel so deeply about my work,” she said.

“We felt we had no control, we couldn’t go anywhere, we didn’t know anything,” Cheunchujit said. “Now, it’s very different.”


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