Captive Thai workers

The Event: Government raid of a factory in Southern California where employers held seventy-two Thai workers in slavelike conditions

Date: August 2, 1995

Location: El Monte, California

Significance: Thai laborers were forced to toil in a makeshift garment factory in a Los Angeles suburb for more than six years until the operation was busted. Workers were eventually given back pay as well as permanent residency status.

Starting in 1989, seventy-two rural Thai villagers, mostly women, were confined in apartment buildings at El Monte, California, where they were forced to sew garments for less than two dollars per hour, working sixteen-hour-plus workdays, seven days a week. After arriving at Los Angeles International Airport on tourist visas, the laborers were transported to work compounds, and their passports and possessions were confiscated. Promised $1,000 monthly wages and a ten-hour workday, they had signed contracts before their trips pledging to pay back $8,000 to $15,000 in travel and other expenses. Workers’ living quarters were infested with cockroaches and rats, and razor wire outside the compound deterred escape. They were denied communication with the outside as well as medical care, and they were forced to pay inflated prices for their food. Although most had no idea that their rights had been violated, at least seven escaped.

Acting on a tip from an escaped worker’s friend on August 2, 1995, California and federal government officials, who had gathered sufficient information to obtain a search warrant, broke into the compound and arrested members of the Thai family who ran the factory, except for one who was absent that day and fled after being tipped off by his girlfriend. Federal authorities took the workers into custody until Asian activists had them released from detention.

Suni Manasurangkun and her five sons and two daughters-in-law were in charge of the facility. In 1996, seven defendants pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, requiring indentured servitude, and harboring illegal immigrants. Manasurangkun received a seven-year prison sentence. Five were sentenced from two to six years. The seventh, who cooperated with the prosecution, was deported to Thailand, as were the rest after serving their sentences.

A civil lawsuit filed by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in 1996 against the retail companies that purchased the garments recovered approximately $4 million in back pay, with awards ranging from$10,000 to $80,000 depending on the workers’ time in confinement. The center also won permanent residency status for them in 2002.

Most of the freed workers remain in the Los Angeles area, cleaning homes or working in restaurants, massage studios, or garment factories. By 2008, a few had become prosperous owners of busy massage studios or Thai restaurants, and dozens had been granted citizenship.

Michael Haas

Further Reading

  • International Labor Organization. Human Trafficking and Forced Labour Exploitation Guidance for Legislation and Law Enforcement. Geneva: Author, 2005. 
  • Kang, K. Connie. “Once Virtual Slaves, Seventyone Thai Workers Win U.S. Residency.” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2002, p. B-1. 
  • Richard, Amy O’Neil. International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime. Reston, Va.: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999. 
  • Su, Julie A. “Making the Invisible Visible: The Garment Industry’s Dirty Laundry.” In Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Contract labor system; Crime; Globalization; Illegal immigration; Los Angeles; Quota systems; Sweatshops; Thai immigrants.

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