Asian Americans Advancing Justice - LA

Building upon the legacy of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

El Monte Garment Workers Case Sets Precedents Beneficial for All Low-Wage Workers

The year was 1995. Julie Su, then a young APALC staff attorney less than two years out of law school, had known about the raid before it happened. She’d gotten a call from the state labor commissioner’s office alerting her to an investigation of a site in El Monte, a working class suburb 14 miles east of Los Angeles.

“I’d accompanied them on site visits before,” she says, and I’d thought this would be similar.” Along with the rest of the world, she would learn otherwise the day after state and federal investigators uncovered a shocking array of rights violations at the garment factory. Seventy-two Thai workers had been held behind barbed wire, under armed guard, many of them for as long as seven years. Far more than violations of employment and labor laws, the conditions amounted to a case of modern-day slavery, the workers deprived of the most basic of liberties.

“In reading about the raid the next day in the papers, my first thought was, ‘what happened to the workers?’” Su recounts. “The papers didn’t mention that at all.” On learning that the workers were being held in an INS detention center, she and the Thai Community Development Center, a community partner, mobilized a team to try to meet with them.

“That was the first challenge we faced,” Su says. Initially, the detention center refused to let the APALC-Thai CDC team see the workers.  Persistence paid off – the team refused to leave the detention center premises, even after lights were turned off. But when they finally were allowed in, they were met with more shocks: the workers, garbed in orange jumpsuits, were held in a cavernous, poorly ventilated room with only a single, unwalled toilet among them.

Su and her team immediately grasped that winning the workers’ trust would be the single most important goal of their then-fledgling campaign. It would take several days, but the sincerity of the APALC team and the willingness of the Thai workers to take one more risk came together. From that moment, they took the first steps on a journey that would change them and the world -- including some of the most powerful instruments of government and economy of their adopted country. The workers would finally be released from INS detention on August 14.

In terms of legal precedent, the case resulted in two published decisions by federal courts establishing that companies at the top of production chains are responsible for working conditions throughout the chain. Previously, companies had disclaimed any responsibility, arguing that subcontractors -- like garment factories -- were liable for any violations of workers’ rights. This achievement has enabled workers in other low-wage industries to have their claims against companies at the top of production chains recognized by the courts and other authorities.

In the realm of law and policy, the case led to the passage in California of the toughest anti-sweatshop law in the country. Under AB 633, companies are held responsible for meeting minimum wage requirements for all workers in chains of production, including workers for subcontracted companies. At the federal level, APALC’s innovative advocacy in persuading the government to permit the use of “S” visas for the Thai workers led to the creation of the “T” and “U” visas. These grant victims of trafficking lawful immigration status and work authorization if they assist law enforcement with the prosecution of their victimizers.

The Thai workers and their families are joined by Advancing Justice - LA staff at an annual freedom celebration.
The Thai workers and their families are joined by Advancing Justice - LA staff at an annual freedom celebration.

For the workers themselves, having obtained S visas, they went on to secure lawful permanent residence and most are now U.S. citizens. The lawsuit they brought resulted in settlements from more than 10 manufacturers and private label retailers that exceeded $4 million.

Of all the case’s many legacies, Su, who now enforces all of California’s labor laws as the state’s labor commissioner, names the very way in which it was pursued as among the most significant. “It’s now taught in law schools [as an example of] how to fight for and with your clients and work with them to transform both the practice of law and the lives of clients and lawyers.” None of this would have been possible without the trust between the advocates and the workers that grew throughout the course of the case, a transformative relationship first seeded in a sweltering INS detention center in downtown Los Angeles.

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Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.