In a partial resolution to a case that stunned the nation and received international attention, DIR delivered $1.1 million to workers freed from virtual slavery inside an illegal El Monte home garment manufacturing operation. The checks were given to workers on March 8 in Los Angeles.
Money paid to the more than 109 workers, some of whom had toiled in appalling conditions for up to seven years, came when DIR officials converted assets seized from the operators.
The sweatshop was run in an apartment complex in El Monte surrounded by a razor wire fence that kept more than 70 Thai nationals as prisoners.
Some additional workers at two other garment manufacturing facilities in downtown Los Angeles also shared in the partial distribution of unpaid wages, bringing the total number of garment workers recovering some wages to 109.
"This has been the most notable and perhaps one of the most complex cases we have ever undertaken," said Lloyd W. Aubry Jr., Director of Industrial Relations. "When the California Labor Commissioner exposed this operation last summer, and as elements of the case began to unfold, the entire nation watched in disbelief that it could have happened at all."
The Labor Commissioner, accompanied by local law enforcement and other state investigators, uncovered the ring and swept across the compound in a pre-dawn raid last August.
What they found were workers forced to sew garments from dawn to midnight, often working 22 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of the workers were paid less than $2 an hour.
"We are pleased to be able to fulfill our statutory obligation and issue checks for unpaid wages to the employees who were denied their right to federal and state mandated minimum wages for so long," Aubry said during a press conference announcing the payment. "However, it is obvious that in a case as tragic and egregious as this, there can be no real winners."
"This is a chance to bring to a close one of the sorriest incidents in labor history," Assistant Labor Commissioner Jose Millan said. "We've learned that the unthinkable can occur. But the ceremony and the payments should give hope to any other workers being held in similar conditions. It's evidence that people held in captivity can retain their dignity and go on with their lives."
Nearly a dozen of the Thai workers who had been held inside the complex attended the ceremony and collected their checks. Many workers feared an appearance could ignite reprisals against family members who live in Thailand.
The remaining checks will be forwarded to the workers.
A total of $1,085,521 was obtained from the owners of the El Monte operation and six other garment manufacturers, each held jointly liable for unpaid wages. Of this amount, $861,076 came from U.S. and Thai currency confiscated from operators of the El Monte site, $10,945 in interest paid on the confiscated currency, and $213,500 from garment manufacturers who had contracted with the operators.
Manufacturers exposed in the raid included Ms. Tops of California, Inc.; Topson Downs of California, Inc.; F-40 of California, Inc.; Balmara; Beniko; L&F; and Tomato, Inc.
In all, 109 former employees of the operation shared in the $1.1 million unpaid wage transaction. Amounts for each employee ranged from $64 to as much as $37,488, DIR officials said.
In addition to the Thai workers, 39 Latino sewers worked inside the two downtown Los Angeles shops. They also were paid less than minimum wage, officials have said. They will share an additional $65,500 from the compensation pool under DIR's control.
Seven of the El Monte sweatshop operators have pleaded guilty in federal court to smuggling and harboring undocumented immigrants and violating their civil rights by holding them in slave-like conditions. They face up to seven years in prison.
Sentencing is set for April or May.