Byline: Kristi Ellis

LOS ANGELES--A U.S. District Court judge has handed down sentences of six years in prison to two of the seven El Monte, Calif., sweatshop owners and associates who recruited more than 80 laborers from Thailand and virtually enslaved them in the factory complex.
Judge Audrey B. Collins also ordered the brothers--Wirachai and Phanasak Manasurangkun--to each pay $4.5 million in restitution to the workers. Their mother, Suni Manasurangkun; a third brother, Surachi, and three other defendants are to be sentenced this month. All seven pleaded guilty in February to violating civil rights laws.
The sentencings are among the final steps of the El Monte sweatshop case. On Aug. 2, 1995, state, federal and local investigators found a group of Thai nationals living in slave-like conditions, paying off smuggling debts and toiling long hours for meager wages behind barbed wire fences.
Under the February plea agreement, Suni Manasurangkun, the Thai woman also known as "Auntie" by the workers, faces seven years in prison. She ran the day-to-day operations of the sweatshop with the help of her sons. Sunthon Rawangchaison, a guard, faces six years in prison, while Rampha Satthaprasit, a manager, could get four years and Seri Kanchakphairi, another guard, faces a two-year prison term.
In their guilty pleas the defendants admitted that as their operation grew, they imposed increasingly harsh conditions on the laborers to prevent them from escaping. Eventually, they surrounded the El Monte compound with barbed wire and a spike fence and barricaded the doors and windows of the worker's quarters. They also hired two full-time guards who pleaded guilty last February.
The operators also acknowledged making threats against the workers and their families if they tried to escape, cutting off their contact with the outside world, censoring their mail and monitoring their phone calls to keep them from getting help.
The workers, all illegal immigrants, received one-year extensions of their work permits and are employed in the garment industry. The state Department of Industrial Relations distributed $1.1 million in back wages to 109 workers on March 8. The money came from assets seized from the operators during the Aug. 2 raid.
Collins ruled in March that a coalition of labor and human rights organizations can proceed with its suit against five Los Angeles apparel manufacturers and one retailer who allegedly did business with the El Monte operation. The suit is seeking $7 million in back wages and potentially millions more in punitive and compensatory damages. The defendants are Mervyn's, Tomato Inc., L.F. Sportswear, New Boys Inc., Begin Inc., and BUM International Inc..

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