The El Monte shop was one of the most egregious examples of sweatshop labor in the late twentieth century. However, many of its practices, such as indenturing workers, seeking labor without legal status, threats of violence, and violating wage and hour laws are not isolated practices. While El Monte was an extreme case of exploitation, sweatshops are not new to the United States. Americans have long debated what constitutes a fair wage, and reasonable working conditions, as well as society’s responsibility for meeting those standards. Like the Triangle shirtwaist fire in 1911, the El Monte sweatshop is a landmark moment in U.S. labor and immigration law history that galvanized the public demand for reform. Law enforcement officers working the case pioneered new techniques for the protection of the workers. Government officials used the publicity around the case to promote workplace and business reforms. Motivated by a desire to protect their brands, retailers, manufacturers, celebrity endorsers, and universities launched efforts to clean up the garment production commodity chain (the process of production from raw material to finished product). And the lives of the 72 workers were dramatically altered.
The creative use of visa laws makes El Monte important in immigration law enforcement history. Instead of deporting the workers, federal prosecutors arranged for S visas arguing that the workers would be material witnesses and give testimony. The S visa program, originally intended for informants in high profile drug cases, was created one year earlier in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act. The use of the S visa was admittedly a stretch for the El Monte case, but it worked. . Five years later lawmakers recognized the benefit of a visa that encouraged victims of human labor trafficking to testify. Congress passed The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000, establishing the new T visa. Instead of falling back on the 13th amendment which abolished chattel (personal property) slavery and involuntary servitude, law enforcement officers had a new tool. As a report from the Little Hoover Commission explained “Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery. Victims are denied their fundamental freedom, subjected to oppressive and horrifying conditions, and often denied even minimal pay.”
One giant legacy of the El Monte sweatshop case was reform by retailers, manufacturers, celebrity endorsers, and universities. A lawsuit presented by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center on behalf of the El Monte workers resulted in over $4 million in restitutions. The workers sued not only their captors for back wages, they also sued the manufacturers and retailers who had ordered the garments. The suit in federal court was a novel application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws. Originally designed in 1970 to stop organized crime, RICO laws held manufactures and retailers responsible for subcontractors. This was a game changer. As Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation explained “Everyone was stunned by El Monte. It was a wake-up call for the federal government, for manufacturers and for the retail industry. From that moment, the retail industry realized it needed to play a role in reform.” Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and others used the case as a wedge to force manufacturers and retailers to clean up their commodity chains by instituting codes of conduct and hiring monitoring companies to ensure the corporate codes of conduct were being followed.
“The Thai garment workers’ lawsuit was the first federal lawsuit of its kind” explained the workers' attorney Julie Su. “The Workers’ lawsuit” she said “questioned whether those who are at the top of the garment industry pyramid could claim ignorance of the substandard conditions under which their garments are made. Garment manufacturers and retailers routinely try to insulate themselves from legal responsibility for the sweatshop conditions they demand and perpetuate by claiming that garment workers are not their employees.” State and local governments soon got into the act. In 1999 the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 633 making manufacturers and retailers responsible for garment workers’ wages when their contractors failed to pay.
The popularity of a brand name is very expensive to establish and maintain. Retailers, celebrity endorsers, and universities had much to lose by being tied to sweatshop production. Activist organizations and unions used public exposure to pressure companies to police the production of clothing sold under their name or in their establishments. Organizations like the Asian Immigrant Workers Advocates, National Consumers League, Sweatshop Watch, and the labor union Unite Here held demonstrations and mounted public education campaigns.
For the 72 Thai workers in the El Monte shop, the results of the raid were life changing. The Latinx workers in the front shops, on the other hand, remained largely in the underground economy. After being freed from their captors, the Thai workers were not deported. Instead they remained in the United States and were issued visas with a path to citizenship. On August 14, 2008, one of the workers, Maliwan Clinton proudly waved her American flag after being sworn in as a citizen. "I'm an American and this is my home now!" Some of the workers used their sewing skills and took jobs in the apparel industry, this time in legitimate shops. Others worked in retail, restaurants, and cleaning homes. Sutchai Chaisuni, another worker, became a registered vocational nurse after studying for several years in night school. A few of the Thai workers started businesses. Sukanya and Win Chuai Ngan were the 2001 recipients of the Small Business of the Year award from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program. Rotchana Sussman has become an activist against human trafficking. "I learned to let go," she explained "Forgive, but never forget."