News/US: Final $1.2 Million Added to Thai Workers' Settlement +Immigrants: After virtual slavery in El Monte sweatshop, they have become activists as they adapt to life in U.S.

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Subject: News/US: Final $1.2 Million Added to Thai Workers' Settlement +Immigrants: After virtual slavery in El Monte sweatshop, they have become activists as they adapt to life in U.S.
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Thu Jul 29 1999 - 18:20:58 EDT


Final $1.2 Million Added to Thai Workers' Settlement
+Immigrants: After virtual slavery in El Monte sweatshop, they have become
activists as they adapt to life in U.S.
By K. CONNIE KANG
Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1999

At night, Rojana Cheunchujit slept on a dirty floor with seven other women,
among the mice and the cockroaches.

Days were no better. She was paid a pittance for 16 hours of sewing.
Trapped by guards and barbed wire, Cheunchujit had little choice or hope of
escape.

Authorities eventually freed her and 70 other Thai workers, nearly all
women, from years of virtual slavery in an El Monte garment factory.

As the group prepares to celebrate the fourth anniversary of their freedom
Aug. 2, their attorneys today will announce a $1.2-million settlement with
the last of the clothing firms that hired the factory. With the final
settlement, the workers will have received $10,000 to $80,000 each,
depending on how long they worked--some as long as seven years.

Some have used the money to attend school, put a down payment on a house or
start saving for their children's education. Others have sent the money
home to relatives in rural Thai villages. The settlements alone have not
bought them the life they had hoped for in America. They also had to figure
out how to use a telephone, read road signs and, beginning with the
alphabet, learn English. Most still work making clothes, sewing six days a
week. One has become a nurse. Another is getting a beautician's license.
They have had 15 weddings and 13 babies.

Through the lengthy process of suing their former bosses, as well as more
than half a dozen manufacturers and retailers, they also have learned how
laws protect even the most powerless. The El Monte operators were sent to
federal prison, and the workers fought to collect years of back pay.

"Their story is an American story," said Stewart Kwoh, president of the
Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which filed lawsuits on behalf of the
workers and negotiated the settlements, believed to be the largest ever won
by sweatshop workers.

"Within the first year of their freedom, they were saying, 'We're engaged
in this lawsuit and struggle not to punish anybody but to teach
corporations that we're human beings and to ensure that this doesn't happen
again to anybody else,' " Kwoh said.

Seven of their Thai captors eventually pleaded guilty to charges of
conspiracy, requiring indentured servitude and harboring illegal
immigrants. As part of their plea, the operators acknowledged running their
El Monte garment factory from 1989 to 1995 with a captive work force. Two
others are fugitives, believed to be in Thailand.

For Cheunchujit and the other Thai workers, the journey from El Monte has
been one of transformation. They have become activists, participating in
workers rallies, and joined a coalition with Latino colleagues.

Today's announcement of the $1.2-million settlement with Tomato Inc., the
company for which they did the most work, brings their total settlement to
more than $4 million. The exact amount cannot be divulged under the
agreement, lawyers said. Twenty-two Latino workers also received part of
the wage settlements, although they were not held against their will.

The court fight is over, but the Thai workers--mostly in their 20s and
30s--still meet once a month with their attorney, Julie A. Su of the legal
center. "We're like a big family," Su said.

They feel a sense of belonging to one another and, increasingly, to their
new country.

Perhaps none has been transformed as dramatically as Cheunchujit, who has
emerged as the leader. The 28-year-old former seamstress is living a life
"I could never even have imagined," she said. She met her future husband,
USC associate professor Steve Sussman, while asking for directions in a
supermarket parking lot. She now lives in Pasadena, studying to become a
fashion designer. She says her dream is to have her own clothing
factory--one that pays workers well, provides health benefits and a
recreation room, and respects the 40-hour workweek. She also wants a
reputation for making quality clothing.

Hers is more than just a Cinderella story. Because her English is better
than that of others in the group, Cheunchujit feels duty-bound to speak for
them.

Earlier this year, Cheunchujit testified before a state Assembly committee,
urging the panel to approve AB 633, which would require manufacturers and
retailers to guarantee the wages of garment workers.

"Please pass this law to help us obtain and to enforce humane working
conditions," she told the legislators.

The measure passed the full Assembly last month and was approved July 14 by
the Senate Industrial Relations Committee. It will go before the full
Senate in September.

"When we were . . . in El Monte, almost everybody had a bad temper because
we were trapped," said Cheunchujit, who still suffers from numb fingers,
back pain and periodic depression from her nearly five years of captivity.

These days, Cheunchujit carries a pager to enable friends to contact her
quickly. "I am the only one who has free time," she said. The pager went
off on a recent day while Cheunchujit was cleaning her house. It was a
friend asking for a favor. Of course, she answered, then dashed out the door.

"Before, I would have said, 'I have to finish cleaning the house first
before I can take you,' " she said. "I've learned not to sweat over small
things."

The Thai workers were lured to Los Angeles by recruiters in Bangkok, where
they had gone looking for jobs. They were promised top wages in the United
States, and arrived here as tourists. They were met at Los Angeles
International Airport and taken directly to the San Gabriel Valley complex
where their passports and valuables were confiscated.

The Thai workers still in the United States have been issued special visas
provided to witnesses whose testimony for the government could endanger
their lives. (Relatives in Thailand received threats, accompanied by
pictures of the workers. The workers are now applying for permanent
residency.)

Despite their ordeal, workers show no bitterness toward their former captors.

"I forgive them," said Sutchai Chaisuni, who was among the sickliest of the
workers during their confinement.

Within 2 1/2 years of her release, the 25-year-old woman, who had only
completed the fifth grade in Thailand, passed a high school equivalency test.

During her 30 months of schooling, Chaisuni could only sleep about four
hours a night because she was working at a garment factory by day and
attending school at night.

She went to bed with a tape recorder playing her English teacher's lessons.
Each night, she recalled praying, "Dear God, can you help me? This is not
my country, this is not my language. Give me my mind to know and to
memorize what the teacher has told me."

She eventually earned a licensed vocational nursing certificate. When her
mother heard the news, she exclaimed: "Now, I can die!"

Chaisuni works at a Hollywood convalescent hospital. "I like to help
people--especially old people," she said. Chaisuni sent all of her
settlement money home to her mother.

The workers' world has grown in other ways.

Their contact with their Latino colleagues has given them an appreciation
of multiethnic Los Angeles. Bound by their common adversity, the Latino
workers who shared in the settlement say that they have been enriched by
the Thais. "There is no room for racism between us," said former worker
Pilar Iglesias.

Su, the workers' attorney, says the experience has changed her too. For
eight months, she met with the workers nightly. Sometimes, it took 90
minutes just to coordinate rides to the meeting, held usually at the legal
center's downtown office.

Su recruited volunteers to teach English to the workers. She took them to
doctors and dentists, and helped in finding jobs and apartments. She
enlisted Century City attorney Ekwan E. Rhow, a Harvard Law School
classmate, to assist on the case for free. "I never imagined I would feel
so deeply about my work," she said. "We felt we had no control, we couldn't
go anywhere, we didn't know anything," Cheunchujit said. "Now, it's very
different."


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