El Monte sweatshop slavery case still resonates 20 years later

Rotchana Sussman was one of dozens of Thai garment workers to be freed from enslavement in El Monte 20 years ago. Now, Sussman lives in Pasadena with her husband and three children. She has become a spokesperson against human trafficking.
Rotchana Sussman was one of dozens of Thai garment workers to be freed from enslavement in El Monte 20 years ago. Now, Sussman lives in Pasadena with her husband and three children. She has become a spokesperson against human trafficking. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

In the early 1990s, Rotchana Sussman worked sewing garments in her native Thailand. She remembers when the recruiters came, looking for workers who wanted to go to the United States. 

“There were people who go around and look for people who work in the factory, who already know how to work professionally," Sussman said. "They introduced us to meet the smugglers. When you meet them they’re so nice, so friendly. We trusted them.”  

Sussman was 24 then, a single mother struggling to raise two young children.

It sounded like a great offer: For about $4,800 dollars, the smugglers would get her to the United States, and set her up with a job. She could send money home to her children and her parents. Best of all, she wouldn’t have to pay the smuggling fee up front. They told her she could pay it off gradually.

But when she got to Southern California, she was taken to a compound of townhomes converted into sweatshops in El Monte.She and dozens of other Thai migrants sewed garments in the garages, and lived in cramped quarters upstairs. She wasn't allowed to leave for the next year and a half.

“We slept on the floor," Sussman recalls. "In my room, nine people slept. Downstairs was the kitchen and workplace. It was very filthy, with rats and cockroaches.

“You couldn’t open the doors and windows," she added "They boarded up the windows."

The garments they finished were put in bags and pushed outside through garage doors that were rigged to open only slightly, making it difficult to escape. The compound was fenced with razor wire.

Sussman was supposed to work off her smuggling fee, but as a virtual slave.

She and 71 other men and women were finally freed on August 2, 1995, when federal agents, state labor officials and local cops raided the compound, acting on a tip.

Two decades later, the case is considered a landmark that influenced immigration and labor policies.

“The El Monte case was a wake-up call for the nation to the pervasive problems of sweatshops in the U.S." said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

The case led US officials to create a special visa for victims of human trafficking. Retailers that sold clothes made in the sweatshop were held liable in a civil lawsuit.

"Previously, many of the manufacturers and retailers tried to disallow any culpability for sweatshop conditions," Wong said. "As a result of the attention garnered by the El Monte slave case...new case law and legislation were developed to strengthen the culpability of manufacturers and retailers."

Los Angeles is still considered a hotbed for wage theft by state labor officials, in part because of its large informal economy and because many local industries rely on subcontractors - like the garment industry. This promises challenges for local officials as a new minimum wage law kicks in.

One recent afternoon, Sussman looked through old police photographs on a laptop. One image showed a group of women huddled on the ground, seemingly in shock.

"I looked exactly like them," Sussman said, quietly, tears welling in her eyes. "All the memories came back."

She said she worked from about 7 a.m. until almost midnight sometimes, six days a week. Groceries were provided in the compound for steep fee, which she said was charged against her pay.

She scrolled through the photos with Chancee Martorell of Thai CDC, a community organization in Hollywood. The day of the raid, Martorell stood outside the compound with police. She’d been invited along as a social service provider.

“We could not get in because the doors were locked from the outside," Martorell said. "When we tried to ask the workers to unlock the door from the inside, they couldn’t. So that’s when the El Monte police and federal marshals had to use an axe to get in.”

Martorell watched in horror as the workers were led outside, finally, into daylight.

"They didn’t know what was going on," she said. "They were just speechless and too afraid to say anything, to talk. They didn’t understand what was happening.”

The workers were detained by immigration agents at first. Because they weren't legally in the U.S., they were to be deported.

“They thought that the only thing they could do was to send them back home, because they didn’t have any kind of legal status," Martorell said.

At the time, she said, there were no special visas for crime victims. Martorell credits a federal immigration agent for coming up with the idea of granting the workers what are known as "S" visas, typically reserved for witnesses and informants. With these, they were able to stay.

Sussman, like many others, eventually became a U.S. citizen. Her two children came from Thailand to live with her. She remarried and had a third child.

And she became an activist. A photo from the 1990s shows her wearing a determined look at an anti-sweatshop rally. She's also wearing a big blue sandwich board that reads “Retailer Accountability Now."

She said she brought her kids with her.

"I tagged them along to go protesting, to talk, to testify, whatever I could," Sussman said.

Sussman said she struggled with anger at first, and trauma. One recurring nightmare involved her former co-workers at the sweatshop.

"I used to go to sleep and have a dream about a sad party, where we're all lined up, like I remember with immigration," she said.

She's remained active with Thai CDC in campaigns against worker abuse.

"I’m just going to do what’s right," Sussman said. " Not let anything like this happen to anyone.”

A series of events are planned in Los Angeles to commemorate the El Monte sweatshop raid. One is a symposium on human trafficking and wage theft at the Museum of Tolerance on August 5.

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