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El Monte Sweatshop: Operation, Raid, and Legacy

By 1995, the Los Angeles garment industry was the apparel production center of the United States, employing about 100,000 people in over four thousand contract shops. In 1995, S&P Fashion (also known as SK Fashion and D&R Fashion) appeared to many people as an average, mid-sized, LA garment contract sewing shop. They produced mostly ladies’ and juniors’ apparel for a variety of manufacturers and retailers. Garfield shirtIn reality S&P was an illegal operation with, at the time of the raid, 72 people laboring in involuntary servitude (slavery.)

 

The company was a family-owned business run by matriarch Suni Manasurangkun, her sons, and daughter-in-law. The business, which Manasurangkun began as early as 1988, was a sophisticated operation that knowingly broke the law and took many precautions to avoid detection. To provide a plausible source for the clothing being produced and act as a front when representatives from retailers and manufacturers came to inspect their facilities and merchandise, the operators ran two shops, with Latinx workers, in the downtown Los Angeles garment district. At the time of the raid the 1319 W. 12th Place shop had 22 employees while the 1432 Oak Street shop had about 50 workers. Even these shops violated wage and safety laws. The slave shop with 72 Thai workers was in a seven-unit apartment complex in nearby El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles.

 

fake passportThe Manasurangkun family solicited experienced garment workers in Thailand. Recruiters lured mostly young female workers to El Monte with promises of clean factory work for high wages. Workers signed indenture agreements committing them to repay 120,000 baht (about $5,000 in 1997 dollars) to cover transportation costs. The workers understood that they had made a commitment for a three-year stint and would be returned to Thailand at the end of the term. They were brought to the United States through Los Angeles International Airport using fraudulent passports. On arrival in Los Angeles the sweatshop operators confiscated the doctored passports and immediately put their new employees to work.

 

The sewing took place in the first-floor rooms of a two-story apartment complex that was enclosed by a security gate, razor wire, and guards. The truck that ferried the finished goods to the downtown shop took a circuitous and changing route to throw off possible police tails. The garage doors, through which the garments were passed, were never fully raised. The operators attached strings to the garage doors to remind themselves to only raise the doors two feet. This was high enough to slide bags of clothing under but not enough for police to see the sewing machines inside.

 

As is common in the apparel trade the fabric was cut in other specialized shops some as far away as Miami, Florida. Bundles of fabric were shipped to El Monte where they were sewn into finished garments. The clothing was then trucked back to the front shops to be finished – pressed, put on hangers, tags attached, and bagged. fabric bundleThe downtown shops were also where manufactures and retailers who contracted with S&P performed quality control inspections. That the two front shops could not possibly sew the volume of apparel that the El Monte operation produced was a question that the manufacturer’s and retailer’s representatives never asked.

 

Being in Los Angeles was a business advantage for S&P Fashion. With production in the United States, the company had a competitive advantage over foreign manufacturers who had tariff and quota challenges. S&P delivery times were also much faster because they did not have to send their goods thousands of miles by ship. S&P Fashion gained a further competitive edge by grossly underpaying their workers and pushing them to work long hours with no overtime. The enslaved El Monte workers received about 69 cents an hour and usually put in 16 hour days, seven days a week. Through this grueling schedule, the company gained a reputation for producing finished goods on tight deadlines at competitive prices. S&P Fashion sewed garments for popular labels such as Clio, Ocean Pacific, and B.U.M. Equipment. The clothing was sold in well-known retailers, including Mervyn’s, Miller’s Outpost, and Montgomery Ward.

 

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