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Savoring Freedom : Thai Sweatshop Workers Recall Their Pasts and Contemplate Their Futures as They Celebrate With Supporters and Tour the Site of Possible New Jobs

August 14, 1995|CHRISTOPHER SCHEER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forty years ago, Wittipong Withiboompronsak was an orphan living in a Buddhist temple. Ten years ago, he was sewing clothes in Thailand for about $3 a day. Four years ago, he came to the United States and, authorities say, he became a virtual slave. Seven days ago, he was being ordered "back to the tank" by an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent while under federal detention, a towel around his shoulders and a tense, bewildered expression on his face.

On Friday, his 49th birthday, he celebrated his hours-old freedom with a beer, a gap-toothed grin and a blue velvet hat.

"I made it myself," he said proudly of his snazzy cap. Withiboompronsak, a soft, gentle man from Thailand's remote Tak Province, could have said the same thing about the hole in his smile. Unable to visit a dentist while allegedly held prisoner in a sweatshop apartment complex in El Monte, Withiboompronsak had removed several rotting teeth himself--with no anesthetic.

But Friday night was no place for such grim memories. Withiboompronsak was enjoying himself at Wat Thai Buddist Temple, a fluted structure that looks like a chunk of Southeast Asia transplanted to a barren stretch of North Hollywood. He ate rice soup, listened to speeches lionizing him and his 71 fellow sweatshop workers, and even gave a stand-up interview for the evening news.

He was a minor celebrity now, and while the hot white camera lights were annoying, beyond their glare he could glimpse normalcy, a simple thing denied him for so long. He waved happily at a group of children playing nearby, entreating them to give him a candy, and he chatted with a group of saffron-robed monks. No children or monks were ever seen inside the seven-unit, razor-wired compound on Santa Anita Avenue in El Monte, and Withiboompronsak was never allowed to leave.

As the journalists sloughed away, he chatted with an old friend, one of an estimated dozen who scaled the wall of the guarded sweatshop in the seven or so years of its existence. Now this friend, who declined to reveal her name, was healthy, married, several months pregnant and working for a decent wage, and Withiboompronsak saw that life in America could be better than the hell he had experienced thus far. He flashed his shiny new work permit--a six-month license to live and work legally in the United States while waiting to serve as a material witness in the prosecution of his alleged jailers, some of whom were arrested in an Aug. 2 raid by state and local authorities.

"I am going to work here and wait for the money that is owed me, and only then will I return to Thailand," Withiboompronsak said firmly. A new life had begun, he said, and it would certainly be better than the one he had just escaped.

For many of Withiboompronsak's fellow prisoners, that new life will begin at licensed garment factories like Susie's Knitting Mill in the City of Commerce, where 15 of the rescued workers were taken on a tour Saturday and offered jobs at just above the $4.25-minimum wage--or roughly 10 times what they'd been earning in El Monte. The women dawdled by the machines and talked shop, all of them having been professional seamstresses in their native Thailand before being lured into peonage in California. They noted the difference between the high-ceilinged, clean facility and the cramped living rooms and garages they had labored in for 17 hours a day, every day of the week, allegedly under the supervision of an imposing woman known only as "Auntie." Many said they would take jobs at Susie's Knitting Mill.

"Tuk," who declined to give her real name for fear of retribution, was not so sure. After three years at the El Monte site with only a handful of days off--most of which she spent doing laundry--Tuk said she would like to get out of the garment industry and move into housekeeping or care-taking. "I'd like to take care of children," she said, "or old people."

That Tuk, a shy yet composed woman of 37, prefers to remain anonymous is perhaps fitting, since her story is so depressingly similar to most of the 66 other women and five men who toiled with her in three-bedroom apartments crammed wall-to-wall with brown carpeting, sewing machines and bolts of fabric.

Tuk, like nearly all the others, was the child of poor rice farmers. She was raised in Suphanburi in Central Thailand, about 100 kilometers from Bangkok. (Many of the others are from the Northeast bulge of the country--known in Thai as Isaan--a drought-stricken plateau that sends streams of laborers to the cities during every dry season.) When not helping with the rice harvest, Tuk worked in a garment factory in Bangkok, Thailand's booming, overpopulated capital and the center of the country's incredibly rapid industrialization. There she earned only about 75 baht--$3--a day, but she worked a reasonable eight-hour shift and was able to send a little money home to help support her mother, father, nine siblings and her own daughter, who is now 14 and lives with Tuk's parents.

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