LA COPS BUST SWEATSHOP, LIBERATE THAI WORKERS

Byline: Louise Farr

LOS ANGELES--Authorities here have uncovered a sweatshop in suburban El Monte where workers were said to be virtually imprisoned.
A multi-agency law enforcement effort, headed by the California Department of Industrial Relations, led to a Wednesday pre-dawn raid on the garment factory holding Thai immigrant workers against their will, according to authorities.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service is holding 64 people picked up at the site. They also arrested eight Thais suspected of running the operation.
Workers told authorities they were forced to work long hours at substandard pay--an average 84 hours a week for $1.40 an hour--and slept on mats on the floor. Minimum wage is $4.25 an hour.
The factory, in a heavily guarded but well-maintained El Monte apartment building, may have been operating for years, fueled by brokers in Thailand who supplied immigrant workers. Officials said some workers were forced to cooperate under threat of reprisals against family members. Some also said they were made to pay their transportation costs from Thailand but were not allowed to leave the premises even after their "debts" had been repaid. Workers are also believed to have been sold food by the alleged captors.
"It appeared the security precautions were to prevent people from getting out," said Rick Rice, spokesman for the state's Department of Industrial Relations.
At the apartment building, officials found records indicating that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been transferred to banks. They also found blocks of gold, $750,000 in a safe, and garments bearing designer labels.
"They may very well be knockoffs," Rice said, declining to name the designers. "We don't want to implicate anybody at this stage, but given what we found, we're going to be looking at this very closely."
At a press conference Thursday, State Labor Commissioner Victoria Bradshaw said paperwork found at the site indicated that merchandise was being shipped to a number of department stores, including Filene's, Famous-Barr, Hecht's and Macy's East. All of the merchandise was women's apparel.
Representatives of May Deparmtent Stores Co.--parent of Filene's, Famous-Barr and Hecht's--and Macy's East said they were unaware of the situation and therefore could not comment immediately.
At the same time as the El Monte raid, law enforcement agencies executed search warrants at a downtown Los Angeles sewing shop and a Panorama City home they believe to be associated with the El Monte operation.
The shop, SK Fashion on 12th Street, may have completed garments sewn in El Monte. The house, in which an illegal sewing shop was operating in a back room, belongs to a suspected leader of the El Monte group.

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