SAN FRANCISCO --An exhibit on the history of American sweatshops, including a reproduction of the sweatshop in El Monte, CA that was raided and closed by the California Labor Commissioner in 1995, will open on April 22 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. The exhibit features equipment and clothing seized from the infamous El Monte sweatshop, donated to the Smithsonian by the California Department of Industrial Relations.
"Certainly the El Monte compound was an aberration," said John C. Duncan, Director of the California Department of Industrial Relations, "but one we as a society should never forget.
"We are pleased to have been able to contribute to this exhibit by the Smithsonian," he said. "Smithsonian curators have assured us that great efforts were made to fairly portray the historical impact of sweatshops on the American garment industry."
In 1995, after receiving a tip from informants who had escaped the compound in El Monte, then California Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw, initiated the investigation and surveillance that resulted in an enforcement action only six weeks later. On August 2, 1995, Ms. Bradshaw led a group of 46 investigators in a pre-dawn multi-agency raid into the El Monte compound where 72 Thai nationals were discovered living and working in the gated apartment complex ringed with razor wire and spiked fences.
The Labor Commissioner's office took swift action, seizing assets of nearly a million dollars and filing suit against the perpetrators to preserve the workers' wages as a priority in bankruptcy.
"This raid exposed conditions that seemed to belong to an earlier era," said California's current Labor Commissioner, Jose Millan, who assisted Bradshaw in planning and executing the enforcement action. "I never would have believed a situation like this could exist in the United States, and I hope I never see it again."
Workers told investigators that they were virtually imprisoned in the complex. One employee told of not being allowed to leave the complex for the seven years since his arrival. On average, they worked 84 hours a week, for approximately $1.60 per hour. The work was performed in the garages, kitchens and living rooms, located on the ground floor of six two-story townhouse apartments. The windows had been sealed with plywood to prevent the employees from escaping and to ensure that the sounds of the sewing machines could not be heard by neighbors during the night. Small fans were found in various rooms, apparently meant to circulate whatever minute amount of fresh air that might exist, but they did little to reduce the heat produced by the sewing machines and overhead lights.
Investigators also found that the employers were deducting half the wages to repay for the cost of transporting the workers from Thailand. The workers were forced to purchase food and other essentials at inflated prices from a makeshift "company store" located in the garage of the unit nearest the street. In the gated driveway, a guard armed with a machete and bat stood watch over the workers, reducing any chance of escape and preventing the workers from having contact with neighbors or passersby. Along the borders of the porches and driveway, corn, tomatoes and other vegetables grew where flowers would normally be found, providing the only source of fresh produce the workers may have had.
In the bedrooms located on the second floor of the units, the workers slept 10 or more to a room, sometimes even converting closet space into private sleeping quarters. The employees said they were told that if they failed to cooperate and abide by the rules set up by the perpetrators, then there would be retribution against their families in Thailand.
State investigators discovered more than $750,000 in cash and gold stored in a safe located in the cluttered apartment occupied by one of the operation's ringleaders. They also found records indicating the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to foreign banks.
On March 8, 1996, the Department of Industrial Relations turned over $1.1 million to the Thai workers for back wages owed them. The back wages were paid from confiscated assets, interest paid on the currency seized, and from garment manufacturers who contracted with the operators. Checks ranging up to $37,488 were paid out to the 109 employees of SK Fashion, which was the business operated by the perpetrators at various Los Angeles locations, including the illegal El Monte site. An additional $202,887 in converted assets were also delivered to the employees on November 26, 1997.
"We are pleased to have been able to fulfill our statutory obligation and issue checks for unpaid wages to these employees who were denied their rights to minimum wage and overtime for so long," said Millan. "Every penny we were able to produce from this case went toward wages owed to these employees who were denied their rights under California law."
Operators of the facility eventually pled guilty to a number of criminal charges, including indentured servitude and harboring illegal immigrants.
Both Victoria Bradshaw, who is now Deputy Cabinet Secretary to Governor Pete Wilson, and Labor Commissioner Jose Millan are attending the April 21 press preview of "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: American Sweatshops, 1820-Present" at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.