The El Monte Sweatshop Case
Imagine this scene for a moment. You are a garment worker sewing clothing for big name, fast-fashion retailers. Despite promises of high-wages and a good life, you are working 18 to 20 hour days in a guarded compound with no windows or communication to the outside world.
Your wages aren’t enough to pay for food or day-to-day necessities, so you are forced into a crushing debt that you will never be able to pay back. Enslaved in a desperate cycle of dependency for food and shelter, with no hope to break free, you consider your escape, but are reminded of the threats and beatings that will come if you are caught.
This scene is a true moment in history.
When I first read this story, my mind immediately took me to foreign locations around the globe to where I imagined sweatshops and trafficking were taking place. What I was not expecting was to discover that this incident happened on American soil.
In August of 1995, a multi-agency raid was conducted by the Department of Labor, state and local law enforcement, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in El Monte, California surrounding an apartment complex. 72 workers from Thailand, 67 of which were women, were discovered within the garment shop. The workers had been trafficked from Thailand into the U.S. after being promised better-paying jobs and the opportunity to help their families back home in Thailand. Once in America, their passports were taken and they were ushered by bus to a guarded complex where many of the workers were held for 7 years until their discovery.
72 workers from Thailand, 67 of which were women, were discovered within the garment shop.
I was able to get a first-hand look at this incident through the eyes of the attorneys and judge that heard the case and brought it to justice through a 2016 panel discussion from Southwestern Journal of International Law, which you can read here.
My stomach turns at the thought that less than 25 years ago slavery was still happening, and sadly limited legislation was in place to prevent these injustices. During the 2016 panel discussion, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor, Scott Cummings, spoke on the El Monte case and the issues of worker exploitation, stating, “In 1994, the year before the ‘discovery’ of the Thai workers, the federal government reported that there were 4,500 sweatshops in L.A. defined by systematic labor violations, which included violations such as the failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, violations of health and safety laws, and arbitrary punishment and abuse.”
“In 1994, the year before the ‘discovery’ of the Thai workers, the federal government reported that there were 4,500 sweatshops in L.A. defined by systematic labor violations"
I, perhaps naively, expected that America, in all the freedoms we boast, was immune to the issue of sweatshops and worker exploitation. Yet, in researching the problem, I discovered that our legal system in the past wasn’t sufficient in holding manufacturers responsible for the injustices served through subcontracting work and turning a blind eye to employee treatment.
This case not only helped bring justice to the El Monte employees, it also paved the way for new and lasting litigation that Professor Cummings said, “permanently changed law and irrevocably changed industry behavior.”
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) that addressed the issue of trafficking through prevention, prosecution, and protection. The goal of the bill is to help eradicate trafficking through monitoring and ranking other nations responses to trafficking problems, assisting countries in their efforts. and even removing funding when standards are not met.
Though there is still a long road ahead to fight the issue of slavery, the Department of Justice said that since the implementation of the TPVA, the nation’s capacity to serve justice to traffickers and the resources to protect victims of slavery and exploitation has been greatly enhanced.
In reviewing the strides made by the TPVA, the Department of Justice also stated in a report that the bill has “significantly strengthened prosecution efforts by stabilizing victims, affording them a sense of security and support, and empowering them to come forward and assist authorities in bringing their traffickers to justice.”
While the TPVA is a positive milestone for the U.S. and the issues associated with trafficking and worker exploitation, there is still work to be done in the years ahead. However, I was really encouraged to see that since the year 2000 several modifications to the TPVA have been enacted, as well as the addition of The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 and The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014.
The El Monte case is a tragic event in our U.S. history. We must remember the victims affected by these crimes, and in response, continue to raise our voices louder. The greater our outcry, the further our nation can move toward improved laws and regulations that will create a free and just environment for all who call it home.
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About the Author
Michaela Judge is a military veteran and Southern transplant. As a Public Relations specialist by day, she is overjoyed to use her love of writing to help fight for freedom and justice through Dressember! Her favorite moments are spent with her husband, Phil, and daughter, Ellie, adventuring in Charleston, South Carolina, and spreading hospitality .