Thai El Monte Garment Workers Inducted into US Labor Hall of Honor

Twenty-eight years ago last month, consumers opened their newspapers to learn that sweatshops had returned to the US apparel industry, on domestic soil, under conditions unheard of in nearly a century. In August 1995, more than 70 Thai migrant workers were found to be sewing garments sold by major US retailers, under slave labor conditions, behind barbed wire and armed guards, in the LA suburb of El Monte, California. The public outcry over this horrific abuse, and these workers’ courageous struggle for freedom and justice, was the dawn of the modern anti sweatshop movement in the United States—a movement that resulted in, among many others, the creation of the Worker Rights Consortium.

On September 18, 2023, the El Monte Thai Garment Workers will be inducted into the U.S. Labor Department’s Labor Hall of Honor in Washington, DC, joining the ranks of heroes for workers rights like Dolores Huerta, Mother Jones, and A. Philip Randolph. The Department of Labor Hall of Honor, “recognizes individuals and groups whose distinctive contributions to the field of labor have enhanced the quality of life of millions—yesterday, today, and for generations to come.” In the global struggle against sweatshop abuses in the garment industry, this distinction could not be more true of the El Monte Garment Workers. 

In 1995, the owners of the garment factory, S&P Fashion, lured 72 mostly female Thai garment workers to El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. The workers were promised good pay, a clean work environment, and weekends off. One El Monte worker recalled that a recruiter assured her “… in the States, no one can force you to do anything. It’s a free country.” 

Instead, the workers were forced into modern-day slavery. They were imprisoned, sewing garments in an apartment complex enclosed by razor wire, under 24-hour watch of armed guards who threatened them with physical harm. They were paid 69 cents an hour, for working 16 hours per day, seven days a week, and forced to buy their food from the factory owners, effectively creating a modern day company town, run on imprisoned labor.

On August 2, 1995, after one of the workers escaped and sought help, the sweatshop was raided by police. The eight operators of the sweatshop were arrested, but instead of being freed, the workers were held in detention by US Immigration and Naturalization Services (the predecessor agency to ICE) detention.  Through the workers’ courageous perseverance, the advocacy of local civil society activists, and the dedicated and skillful advocacy of newly-graduated human rights lawyer, Julie Su, the workers won their freedom from detention and right to remain in the country.

 “I’m a happy person, but I’m an angry person, I’ve realized that nothing comes for free- we get things only when we fight. Now I’m a fighter.”

Rotchana Sussman, former El Monte Thai Garment Worker, current human rights activist 

The Thai El Monte workers’ case made history. The workers successfully won a $4-million settlement from manufacturers and retailers who had profited from their exploitation and imprisonment. This marked “the first time in federal court that garment workers successfully held manufacturers and retailers responsible for the actions of their labor contractor.” The workers’ lawyer, Julie Su, has since gone on to a stellar career in labor rights advocacy and labor law enforcement, serving currently as Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor, and previously as California State Labor Commissioner, as well as a board member of the WRC.  
The induction of the El Monte Thai Garment Workers into the Labor Hall of Honor is important and well-deserved recognition of these workers’ quest for justice and its foundational role in the modern global anti-sweatshop movement. Everything the WRC has accomplished in combating sweatshops over the past 20 years—from securing garment workers’ right to organize in Central America to achieving safer factories in South Asia—builds on their courageous struggle. The WRC applauds Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su for the ongoing commitment to justice for all workers that she has shown over the past three decades, and we are inspired, always, when recalling the bravery and perseverance of the Thai El Monte workers.

Photo credit: Thai El Monte garment workers celebrate winning their freedom, August 13, 1995, Courtesy of Smithsonian.