Nearly two dozen of the 72 Thai garment workers who toiled in alleged prison-like conditions in an El Monte sweatshop finally tasted freedom Friday--in some cases years after they began their ordeal.
In all, 21 of the 72 ex-workers--all suspected illegal immigrants--were set free from federal custody after bonds of $500 per person were posted. Authorities said that most if not all of the Thai nationals picked up in the raid on the El Monte site should be free by early next week, once processing is complete.
A federal source indicated that all 72 might be released by late Friday or early today.
It was an emotional moment shortly before 5 p.m. as the 21 proceeded up a ramp leading from the basement parking garage of the Federal Building in Downtown Los Angeles. Some smiled and waved but others wore grim expressions and choked back tears as they walked without comment through a phalanx of journalists and television cameras. They boarded a yellow school bus that community groups had rented to take them to temporary housing.
As the cameras clicked and whirred, community representatives said the workers' release was only the first step on a long road. "Their freedom today is only the beginning," said Julie Su, an attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which has been assisting the Thai nationals and is among those helping them to find lodging and jobs.
Even as the workers were being freed, investigators seeking the identity of purchasers of garments manufactured at the El Monte site were busily reviewing ledgers, labels, canceled checks and assorted paperwork seized from the facility and another garment factory near Downtown Los Angeles.
California Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw said Friday that state investigators would be seeking information from yet another major retail chain--Miller's Outpost--in connection with clothing manufactured at the El Monte site. Authorities have already subpoenaed documents from Mervyn's, and on Thursday, Montgomery Ward--the nation's largest privately held retail chain--said it had unwittingly purchased boys clothing that may have been manufactured at the El Monte complex.
Fred Ford, senior vice president of Hub Distributing, which owns Miller's Outpost, said, "As far as we know, we have not" bought clothing produced at the El Monte sweatshop.
State and federal labor officials plan a joint announcement next week unveiling subpoenas of up to 20 other firms that may have bought the sweatshop-produced garments, said John Duncan, chief deputy director of the California Department of Industrial Relations.
In another development, a South El Monte building inspector said Friday that U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials never contacted him back in 1992, when the INS closed its initial investigation--a decision that has prompted sharp criticism of the agency. State authorities have already denied receiving any referral from the INS, so the official's comment leaves the INS without corroboration of its contention that the matter was referred by telephone to state and local authorities.
INS officials concede that agency procedures call for such referrals to be noted in writing in the case file, a process that was not followed here.
Many, if not all, of the 72 Thai nationals--67 women and five men--are expected to serve as witnesses in the federal prosecution of the sweatshop overseers, eight of whom have already been charged with harboring or transporting illegal immigrants. Prosecutors may add other charges, including peonage and conspiracy, and investigators are still seeking other principals and smugglers believed to be linked to the operation.
Once released Friday afternoon, the former factory workers left for the church where members of the Thai community had arranged lodging for the night. They also visited the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood, a religious and cultural center where members of the area's Thai community had gathered to greet them.
The 18 women and three men knelt and bowed their heads reverently as saffron-robed Buddhist monks blessed them, chanting sutras by a lavish altar backed by a room-sized golden Buddha statue. The workers grinned and hugged each other joyously as they filed out the temple hall for a banquet of Thai cuisine.
Aroon Seeboonruang, chairman of the Thai Assn. of Southern California, stopped a cluster of women and asked how they felt about their new freedom.
"We're happy!" they said in unison as they turned, displaying broad grins that suggested both excitement and relief.
Their release followed lengthy negotiations involving federal officials, defense lawyers, Thai community representatives and labor leaders. Volunteer groups have agreed to sponsor the former factory hands and provide them with housing. Thai community and labor groups, assisted by the Thai Consulate, helped raise the funds to post the bond, representatives said.