This Thai passport was seized in the well-publicized 1995 El Monte, Calif., sweatshop raid. The passport is part of a larger Smithsonian collection of artifacts documenting apparel industry sweatshops, focusing on the El Monte operation (72 workers were discovered working as slaves). With a legitimate U.S. visa, the passport looks official. In fact, the El Monte operators doctored a real passport, inserting a new photo into someone else's document, in order to smuggle workers into the country.
Recruited from Thailand, the El Monte workers were tricked into accepting employment by misrepresentations of their future working and living conditions. They were told they would sew in a clean factory, receive good pay, and have the weekends off. They were even shown photographs of company parties and outings to Disneyland. After signing contracts (indenture agreements) committing themselves to repay 120,000 baht (about $5,000 in 1997 dollars), they were smuggled into the United States on fraudulent passports.
On arrival, the sweatshop operators confiscated the passports and the workers were forced to sew 18 hours a day seven days a week. The debt, a guard force, and threats of physical harm to the workers and their families in Thailand discouraged them from escaping. Although the physical confinement of the work force was unusual, many aspects of the business, such as recruiting and smuggling workers, are relatively common. Less enslaving forms of debt peonage occur surprisingly often in some Asian immigrant communities.
Sweatshops occur in many sectors of manufacturing, but are most often associated with the garment industry. While garments are designed and marketed through big name companies, assembly is often left to contract and sub-contract operations. In these small shops, where profits are razor thin and competition is excessive, abuses are rampant.
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