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Sweatshop Workers' Plight Splits Thai Community : Culture: Some are split over whom to sympathize with: the exploited employees or the family-operated business.

August 23, 1995|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The widespread belief that there is a huge presence of Thai illegal immigrants in the Los Angeles area makes the El Monte case a touchstone for community worries about how it is perceived by the public.

"There are lot of sensitive issues involved in this," said Phyome Phyakul, a financial analyst who serves as president of the Thai Muslim Assn., which sponsored the $500 bail for 16 of the El Monte workers.

Phyakul got involved in sponsoring and sheltering the workers at the request of Suphot Dhirakaosal, the Thai consul general in Los Angeles. The vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, but Phyakul's group operates a small mosque in Monrovia for about 100 Thai families in Southern California of the Islamic faith.

He quietly organized a meeting with Martorell and other sponsors at the Monrovia mosque Sunday, successfully forging an agreement to cooperate on distributing donations and coordinating activities among the Thai workers, now temporarily housed at four locations.

"We don't seek any publicity, said Phyakul, 55. "But sadly, there's no leader in the Thai community with authority."

Indeed, Dhirakaosal, the consul general, became a target of criticism for trying to "save face" for the Thai community--and the Thai government--by allegedly encouraging the workers to waive their rights to deportation appeal hearings. He denied that charge.

"Our duty is to protect the interests of these people," he said. "They are scared. If they would like to go back, they should go home. I've told them that the [Thai] government will pay their way if they decide to go home. . . . I cannot order them to go home. I told them you need to make their own decision."

All 72 workers were released from INS custody with six-month work permits, allowing them to remain in the United States legally long enough to serve as material witnesses in the criminal trial of their alleged captors, nine of whom have been indicted.

The furor over the El Monte sweatshop continues to cause discord and embarrassment for the Thai community at large--instead of uniting people in charity, as many Thai leaders had hoped.

One prominent member of the community said he and his brother have stopped speaking to each other because of their difference of opinion on the case.

This man is outraged about labor abuses victimizing Thai and other undocumented workers in the region's underground economy. But his brother, he says, believes all the fuss is misguided and that everyone would benefit if things just quieted down.

"Everything is torn between two camps right now," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "But people in the end will forgive and forget. I don't know why. It's the culture. There will be a healing, and I think the community will be stronger."

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