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Once Virtual Slaves, 71 Thai Workers Win U.S. Residency

Freed in a 1995 raid at an El Monte sweatshop, they have forged new lives in the U.S.

November 18, 2002|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Seven years after 71 Thai workers were freed from virtual slavery in an El Monte sweatshop, they now have permission to live permanently in the United States.

The workers, who were allowed to remain here after trial proceedings on special visas provided to witnesses whose testimony could endanger their lives, were notified by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of their new legal status -- much-awaited news that made some shout for joy.

"I am happy, happy, happy," Sirilac Rongsakare said outside a South Los Angeles garment factory where she now works.

No longer will she have to worry about traveling to Thailand to visit her family, Rongsakare said through an interpreter. While her legal status was in limbo, she could not leave the country without special permission. Now, she can change jobs or look for other opportunities -- options she hadn't dared consider while waiting for permanent residency, she said.

The workers -- some of whom sewed for as long as seven years behind razor wire and around-the-clock guards in El Monte -- will receive their official green cards in three to six months, said their attorney, Julie A. Su, of the Asian American Pacific Legal Center.

Much has happened since Aug. 2, 1995, when authorities raided the San Gabriel Valley factory and freed the workers who made less than 60 cents an hour. Their plight made headlines around the world.

Along with 22 Latina workers, who were not held against their will, they fought in the courts to collect years of back pay -- winning more than $4 million in settlements from big-name firms such as Tomato Inc. and Mervyn's that did business with the operators of the sweatshop. Settlements for each worker ranged from $10,000 to $80,000, depending on how long they were there.

Since they were freed, 22 of the Thai workers have married and given birth to 18 babies. Some have left Los Angeles to follow their spouses to the East Coast. Several have returned to Thailand. But most remain in the Los Angeles area, sewing, cleaning homes and working at restaurants. Many hold down two jobs to support relatives back home.

Rotchana Sussman, who married USC professor Steve Sussman nearly four years ago, lives a life in Pasadena that she could not have even imagined.

The former Rojana Cheunchujit, who spent five years hunched over a sewing machine 18 hours a day and who slept in a room infested with mice and cockroaches with seven others, lives in a lovely home with her husband and three children. She has given birth to a baby boy since her marriage and brought from Thailand two children from a prior marriage whom her husband has adopted. Her parents now own a convenience store, and her sister has a noodle stand -- thanks to the money she sent them. Her mother has visited Pasadena once, and now she hopes to have her father visit them, too.

"My life is unbelievable," Rotchana Sussman said in fluent English. "It's like a movie."

Sutchai Chaisuni , among the sickliest during the confinement, is now a healthy and busy licensed vocational nurse who travels between two Kaiser Permanente medical facilities on the Westside.

"I love taking care of patients -- especially old people," said Chaisuni, who aspires to be a registered nurse.

Another, one of four male workers held captive, owns the garment factory where Rongsakare and eight other former El Monte workers are employed.

Portraits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit are displayed prominently inside the office of this entrepreneur, who doesn't want his name or the name of his business mentioned. Two other former captives -- Win and Sukanya Chuai-Ngan -- operate a Thai restaurant in Van Nuys. They wed last year and threw a reception at their restaurant. The couple were also awarded the 2001 Small Business of the Year award from the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program.

The journey of the workers -- mostly young women from Thai villages who were tricked into coming to the United States by recruiters in Bangkok, where they had gone looking for work -- has been remarkable at every turn.

Arriving as tourists, they were met at Los Angeles International Airport and taken directly to the El Monte apartment complex, where their passports and valuables were confiscated. All had signed a contract promising to pay back $5,000 in travel and other expenses. They bought such necessities as toothpaste and soap at exorbitant prices from the company store.

Acting on a tip from the friend of an escaped worker, investigators from the state Department of Industrial Relations staked out the seven-unit apartment complex and gathered sufficient information to obtain a search warrant.

On Aug. 2, 1995, authorities raided the site. The working and living conditions horrified even those professionals.

In 1999, the workers' story became a centerpiece of the Smithsonian Institution's critically acclaimed exhibit on sweatshops, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of American Sweatshops 1820-Present."

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