March 9, 1996 in Nation/World

Settlement In Slave Labor Case Split Among Garment Workers Sweatshop Kept Thai Immigrants Behind Barbed Wire In L.A.

Robert Jablon Associated Press
 

Scores of Thai and Hispanic garment workers who toiled in sweatshops for as little as $2 an hour split up $1.1 million in back wages on Friday.

State labor officials handed out checks ranging from $64 to more than $37,000 to 109 workers who stitched clothing that wound up in such stores as Mervyn’s, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.

“We can never repay everything that they have lost over these times. But we have got to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” said city attorney James Hahn.

Last August, authorities raided a sweatshop in suburban El Monte and discovered more than 70 Thai illegal immigrants living behind barbed wire and working up to 22 hours a day. Some said they had been held for years. Prosecutors claimed that Thai nationals had run the sweatshop since 1989, recruiting impoverished fellow Thais and supplying them with phony passports.

Last month, seven people pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy, harboring illegal immigrants and holding the workers in involuntary servitude. They face up to seven years in prison at sentencing next month.

The garment workers who received the checks were employed in the El Monte sweatshop or in three other factories run by the same ring. The size of their checks depended on their length of employment.

The workers, who could face deportation, had remained in Los Angeles in case they were called to testify in the case. They now have permits allowing them to work through February 1997.

The checks represented money and assets seized at the El Monte sweatshop, along with payments from garment makers who contracted with the clothing maker. Officials hope to recover millions of dollars in additional assets that may be in Thailand.

A ceremony was scheduled to hand out the checks to a dozen Thai workers, but it was abruptly canceled because some were afraid to been seen on television. “They’re afraid for their families in Thailand,” said Phyome Phyakul, chairman of a Thai Islamic group that is acting as guardian for 16 victims.

Two of the alleged ringleaders still are at large and are believed to be in Thailand.


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