On Aug. 2, 1995, 72 Thai garment workers who had been trapped in enslavement for years in El Monte, CA, were finally freed. As the authorities raided the compound of townhouses converted into sweatshops, they unmasked the first recognized case of modern-day slavery in the United States since the abolishment of slavery.
The majority of these undocumented, illegal immigrants were women who were recruited from all parts of Thailand and smuggled to the U.S. In suburban Los Angeles, they were confined in a complex behind fences topped with barbed wire. These workers were forced to work—sewing garments in the garages—from dawn till night, six days a week for less than $2 per hour.
Living under 24/7 surveillance by armed guards, they were not allowed to speak to one another, open windows and doors, have contact with the outside, or have breaks. Besides this, the retailers threatened them with physical harm and retaliation in order to prevent them from escaping.
For these workers, getting a job in the U.S. turned out to be virtually slavery. When they were rescued in 1995, some had been enslaved for as long as seven years.
As it was reported by the LA Times, “The Thai Community Development Center later helped fight for the workers' release from immigration detention, avoidance of deportation and a $4-million settlement from the manufacturers and retailers who had enslaved the workers.”
The seven retailers pleaded guilty to violating Federal civil rights laws the next year and were sentenced to imprisonment. Yet, the victims were still experiencing the trauma of sweatshop abuses.
After 22 years, the El Monte case still reminds us that human trafficking and modern slavery are pervasive around the world. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) USA estimates that 21 million people are trafficked globally. In today’s society, this atrocity has become more and more complex, even further developing into various forms including sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, and other exploitative situations.
Overall, human trafficking refers to any “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose.”
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there have been 31,659 human trafficking cases reported in the U.S. since 2007; and this number has steadily been increasing over the last five years.
Like similar social issues, human trafficking impacts both U.S. citizens and immigrants (both legal and undocumented). Last year, Ohio was involved in 375 cases and was the fourth most affected state nationwide. Alarmingly enough, this reminds us that crime is occurring around us, every second of every day.
As Ohioans, we should raise awareness about the dignity of lives of those being trafficked. We encourage you to take action to help human trafficking survivors. It does not take much. Even a simple phone call could save a life.
Monroe, Julie and Kent Wong (eds)(2006). "Sweatshop Slaves: Asian Americans in the Garment Industry", P. 94, UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, Los Angeles. ISBN 0-89215-000-9