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ROBIN ABCARIAN

You Will Never Look at Your Closet the Same Way Again

May 08, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

PR-wise, the defense lawyer didn't have much to work with. A state labor official called the case "one of the sorriest incidents in labor history." "Modern slavery" was how a federal civil rights honcho put it.

So the advocate was understandably edgy as he stood outside the courtroom. He shifted on his feet, grimaced and even seemed to wince as he tried to describe the strategy he might have used in a trial. But his client, an overseer of the Thai slave-labor garment enterprise in El Monte, had saved him the trouble. She pleaded guilty to the charges brought against her--conspiracy, indentured servitude and harboring illegal immigrants--and was sentenced Monday in federal court.

A poetic sort of justice there: She'll be behind bars just about as long as she operated the sweatshop.

"I don't want to minimize in any way what she did," said the lawyer, Joel Isaacson, imagining what he might have told a jury. "But maybe it wasn't that bad. She worked all the time too. Sometimes she lent them money. And they called her 'Auntie.' She feels terrible. She cries all the time."

You bet she cries.

The woman got seven years.

*

According to the victims--67 women and five men--"Auntie" was not a term of endearment for the 66-year-old Suni Manasurangkun. It was an acknowledgment of her status as head of a ring that included at least seven others. She lent money so that the workers, who earned less than $2 an hour as they toiled an average of 84 hours a week, could repay their "passage fees" and purchase goods from the company store--items such as deodorant or face lotion for $12, or maybe a sewing machine part for $25 that had cost Auntie $2.

That is some business acumen.

Little surprise, then, that when officials raided the place in August, they confiscated, along with machines and records and raw materials, about $750,000 in cash. That money has since been doled out to the workers for back wages, and the courts have assessed restitution of another $4.4 million.

Such a loss. No wonder Auntie weeps.

You might wonder how those major retailers, the ones buying the clothes from Auntie's sweatshop, managed to ignore that the goods on their shelves were produced by virtual slaves. They didn't ignore the execrable working conditions, say retailers, they just didn't know about them.

Pressures in the retail business, are, of course, enormous. Consumers want those low, low prices and that good, good quality.

And if the work can't be done in Asia or Latin America, is it any surprise that manufacturers are replicating the working conditions of the Third World right here in Greater Los Angeles?

"I'm not going to get into a public debate over moral obligations," said an executive from May Department Stores after a coalition of labor and immigration activists accused retailers in February of ignoring the conditions under which their merchandise is being produced.

I mean, it's not like consumers will complain.

You priced an Italian suit lately?

*

In the months following the El Monte bust, the waves of outrage drew the usual surfers: bureaucrats (who have vowed reform), legislators (who have allocated funds to enact those reforms), community activists (who have helped the victims make the transition to freedom).

About 40 victims came to court for the sentencing. They had been jailed briefly following the bust. Most are now working in other garment industry jobs. A few are doing domestic work. At this point, having come from Thailand illegally, their immigration status is uncertain.

Imagine what one young woman told the judge: "The day I was arrested," she said, "was a day I was very happy." Pretty sad gig where jail beats work.

The Thais suffered in the extreme, but most garment workers have it bad. They don't make minimum wage. They have no standing, no voice, no recourse.

"I ask the judge to have mercy on me," said the gray-haired, bespectacled woman they called Auntie, having wiped a tear as she refused to look at her victims. "And please be lenient."

Right.

Every day, as I drive through the garment district, which lies between the freeway and the office, I look up at the grimy windows of tall old buildings. I make out rolls of fabric leaning against sooty glass and imagine the workers, sitting in firetraps, making seams, cutting patterns, getting by.

I now regard my closet with suspicion.

Once upon a time, a "Made in the USA" label gave a warm, saving-good-American-jobs kind of glow.

Not anymore. Auntie and her cohorts took care of that.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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