About three decades ago, in an apartment complex in El Monte, Calif., 72 Thai workers — many of them women — worked. Constantly. Incessantly.
They were forced to sew, often for 18 hours or longer, making clothing for name-brand retailers while being surveilled by armed guards for as long as seven years.
But on August 2, 1995, federal agents and local law enforcement interceded, raiding the complex on a tip from the boyfriend of an escaped worker.
“I can see where I slept, I can see where I worked, I cook, you know around inside of that house,” recalled Maliwan Radomphon Clinton, one of the women who was enslaved in the El Monte sweatshop for around two years. “We never forget anything about the past and El Monte is still there, whenever we talk about that, we remember every detail.”
Radomphon Clinton worked from 7 a.m. until after midnight in the sweatshop, craned over a sewing machine “We were told that if we complained, they would hurt us,” she said. “They said they would bring harm to our families.”
“We didn’t know what to do at the time — until Julie Su showed up.”
At the time, Su was 26 years old, working as a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. She helped lead a team that sued the captors and the manufacturers and retailers, and was able to recover over $4 million in back wages.
Su — now the acting Labor Secretary — was there for them again Monday, as the workers were inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor, taking their “rightful place in American labor history,” she told Spectrum News.
“It is exciting for me, but also, personally deeply meaningful to have seen their growth and their struggles and their courage and the impact that they've made over these last three decades,” Su said.
“I could not imagine what would have happened without you that day,” Radomphon Clinton said, speaking directly to Su during her remarks.
The celebration honored not just the garment workers, but also Su, who has faced a difficult confirmation battle in the Senate since being nominated by President Joe Biden. Her record has faced intense scrutiny by Republicans for her handling of unemployment fraud and her support of a law that regulated the gig economy during her tenure as California’s top labor official.
“Acting Secretary Julie Su worked morning, noon, and night for justice for the Thai workers with focus and determination. She used her legal skills to provide excellent representation, and she used her organizing skills to build an unprecedented coalition of unions, worker rights organizations, community groups, faith based networks, and students to demand justice,” said Kent Wong, Director UCLA Labor Center, in his opening remarks. “Julie Su didn’t treat the Thai workers as clients. They became her family and she fought for them as if they were members of her family.”
Some of the workers we spoke with call Su a “sister,” and that they often keep in touch over text messages. The affection between the Thai workers and Su is evident through their interactions.
“We’re so happy to see each other, even though she’s far away from us, we still talk, we still text, we still ask each other how we are doing all kinds of stuff,” said Radomphon Clinton who said Su’s presence made the honor even more special.
“We’re lucky President Biden picked Julie Su to work in his cabinet and fight for all workers,” said Nantha Jaknang, one of the workers, during her remarks.
“I know we never imagined being all here together, we never thought this would be possible. And I just know for certain that I would never not be the Acting Secretary of Labor today were it not for you,” said Su in her own remarks, becoming emotional. “To everyone who has been underestimated because of what we look like, or where we come from, who take on big battles that people say cannot be won, you are proof of what is possible and that we are capable of even more than we know.”
In February 1996, the eight operators who held the workers captive pled guilty to federal charges, including conspiracy, involuntary servitude, smuggling and harboring illegal immigrants.
The workers filed lawsuits against the companies that they were sewing for and challenged the multibillion dollar garment industry and its practices. The workers were allowed to stay in the U.S., learning English and becoming American citizens. They’ve gone on to get married, have children, and lead successful lives in spite of the horrors they faced.
Moreover, their plights changed immigration law for all who may come after them. Su lists among the workers’ legacies the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, and development of the U and T Visas, nonimmigrant visas that provide legal status to victims of certain criminal activities or human trafficking who aid law enforcement in prosecuting their abusers.
“If they had been deported immediately, it would have sent a message to all workers in vulnerable situations who are often threatened by their employers, that ‘if you report me, I'm going to make sure some harm comes to you,’ that their employers are correct, it would just make it harder for workers to come forward, report abuse and stand up for their rights,” said Su. “Just seeing the changes that they have made to laws to the way companies in the industry operate, to the way the government treats survivors of human trafficking, the way that the government fights wage theft. All the lessons that I learned from them and from working with them are things that I bring into my job now as acting labor secretary.”
The Hall of Honor began in 1988 to “honor those Americans whose distinctive contributions in the field of labor have elevated working conditions, wages, and overall quality of life of America's working families.” The department has inducted notable groups of workers, such as the 9/11 rescue workers, the workers of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and the The Pioneers of the Farm Worker Movement, as well as leaders such as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former President Ronald Reagan. Last year, the department honored frontline workers of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To contact the Wage and Hour Division to report violations or ask questions about labor law compliance in any language, you can call 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). You can read about your rights online in English, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese and other languages.