“…this historic case was the first labor struggle of global proportions our city has seen… It was crucial as the first major case to receive national attention where the old divisions of race, class, language, and ethnicity were wiped away to form a single, united movement focused on the combined issues of human rights and social and economic justice for all workers.” – Chanchanit Martorell and Panida Rzonca
A partnership between the Museum of Social Justice, the Thai Community Development Center, and a California State University -Northridge (CSUN) design class, “Thai El Monte Garment Workers: The Return of Slavery and Trafficking in the Modern Era,” raises awareness of the prevalence of human trafficking of foreign nationals into the United States for sexual exploitation or the performance of slave labor, both then and now. Supported by a Humanities for All Project Grant, the project makes visible the critical role of this California story in sparking garment industry reforms, creating legislation to protect worker rights, and launching a global movement against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. In this interview, we asked Project Directors Chanchanit Martorell and Panida Rzonca to share more information about the Thai El Monte Garment Workers, their inspiration for the project, and ways they engage with the public.
Please tell us about the Thai Community Development Center and its relationship to the story that is the center of your project?
Thai CDC played a pivotal role in the landmark El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case. Thai CDC was part of the multi-agency pre-dawn raid that liberated the 72 Thai nationals from the clandestine makeshift garment factory in El Monte, California, on August 2nd, 1995. The case shed light on the new global phenomenon of human trafficking in the United States. This case also became known in U.S. history as the first case of modern-day slavery since slavery was abolished in this country in 1865.
On that fateful day, we freed six dozen Thai garment workers who labored behind sewing machines for as long as seven years against their will and were never allowed any contact with the outside world. Under 24/7 surveillance by armed guards, the workers and their families back home were under the threat of retaliation should they dare escape. Barbed wires surrounded their compound. Their passports were confiscated, letters home censored, and movement throughout the compound monitored. They had been recruited from rural provinces in Thailand. They were promised temporary garment work in the U.S., where they would earn legitimate pay to support their struggling families in Thailand. Sadly, the workers were deceived and forced to work long hours every day with little to no break for little to no pay.
They were forced into indentured servitude, expecting to pay off the debt to their traffickers and captors for the expense of being transported into the U.S. and housed in the factory. Upon their liberation, the workers came under Thai CDC’s care around the clock. Thai CDC provided them emergency relief and resettlement assistance, including housing, food, clothing, and basic necessities. We mobilized resources for the workers such as medical care, legal services, and telephone cards and taught them survival English skills. We organized a coalition of civil/workers’/immigrant rights organizations to demand corporate accountability from garment manufacturers and retailers who profited from the workers’ slave labor through the Retailer Accountability Campaign. We also brought together legal aid organizations to file a civil suit to obtain redress and restitution for the workers and make them whole again.
For Thai CDC, this historic case was the first labor struggle of global proportions our city has seen, proving that if capital could redraw the old boundaries in its favor, so could the people. It was crucial as the first major case to receive national attention where the old divisions of race, class, language, and ethnicity were wiped away to form a single, united movement focused on the combined issues of human rights and social and economic justice for all workers. Our intervention and the resiliency of the workers’ human spirit allowed them to move on with their lives, reuniting with their families, creating new ones, and celebrating life.
2021 is the 25th anniversary of this historic event. What inspired you to commemorate this story now?
A quarter of a century since the discovery of the case is an important milestone for commemoration. There were significant aspects about the case that the media did not report on, such as the role of a grassroots Thai community organization like the Thai CDC in helping the workers overcome their fears, timidity, and powerlessness to become a force for real change. The media coverage never mentioned the importance of coalition-building in the fight for social justice and human rights nor the significance of the case in sparking the movement against the scourge of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. We were fortunate to witness the workers’ courage, strength, perseverance, and personal transformation from victims to change agents, which continues to inspire us to this day in our never-ending fight for justice. Thai CDC did not allow the workers’ experience as slave laborers to mark them for life as victims. We did not allow their diminished status as “social pariahs” in the Thai community to keep them thinking of themselves as “servants” in the “master’s” house.
Our story is also about survivors declaring that their years of imprisonment would not be the end of their story. These workers realized that they had greater responsibility and became activists themselves. With the guidance of the Thai CDC and their own consciences, these workers declared that modern-day slavery exists and must be fought against. They joined labor protests, rallies for workers’ rights, and other political actions, crossing ethnic and cultural lines. They became agents for social change.
How does the exhibit engage the public? What prompted you to choose this format?
The exhibit engages the public by creating an experience that tells the story of the El Monte Thai Garment Slavery case through various panels that guide the participant/attendee and provide context for what happened back in August 1995 from the workers’ point of view. The visual timeline also engages the participant by allowing them to place the events in order to see what impact the case had on our society and laws in the United States. Participants were able to view original photos taken at the time of the events that were not previously published and see quotes in an engaging way with the picture of each speaker printed on hanging fabrics throughout the event. An in-person exhibit encourages each participant to read through the text of the panels, whereas a more passive outlet like a book or website does not provide the same level of engagement and interaction. The exhibit was also developed by a team of designers specializing in museum presentations and style and made the exhibit more appealing and accessible for museum-goers.
Can you tell us more about your partnerships with academic and community partners and how they contribute to the project’s success?
Our partnerships with multiple partners led to the project’s success. We partnered with CSUN Impact Design Hub Professors Dr. Paula DiMarco and Vesna Petrovic. They led multiple cohorts of student designers in creating both designs for the exhibit and a website and a booklet. Though the website and booklet are not finalized, we will continue to work on them to ensure that the spirit of the exhibit lives on. Thai CDC also partnered with University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) Asian American Studies Center and is planning to create a tool for teachers to teach the case to adults. We hope that this partnership will also ensure that the story is told in a worker-centered approach. The leading partner we worked with was the Museum of Social Justice, where the exhibit was hosted. Without this partnership, we would not have a venue and expertise to consult with regarding putting the exhibit together. The MSJ also provided Spanish language translations and copy-editing on the museum texts.
What do you hope will result from this project – both short and long-term?
In the short term, we hope this project will tell the definitive story of the plight of the El Monte workers from their recruitment, enslavement, freedom, personal transformation, fight for justice, and ultimate victory in bringing about real social change. The project also helps us pivot the prevailing narrative on this case from victims being rescued and saved to the importance of their long and arduous journey to personal transformation, the critical role of a grassroots organization like Thai CDC that facilitated that transformative process, and the power of broad-based coalition building to hold corporations accountable for working conditions and to set legal precedents for redress and restitution for victims of human trafficking. Finally, in the long term, we hope this project will help people understand the role of global capitalism in perpetuating human trafficking and modern-day slavery. It is an economic system that depends on the ruthless exploitation of a defenseless and disenfranchised labor force to churn increasing profits of unprecedented proportions.
About the Project Directors:
Chanchanit Martorell is the founder and Executive Director of the Thai Community Development Center. She has been working in the Thai community for almost three decades. She received her Master of Urban Planning degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. She is known most notably for her work on a half dozen major human rights cases involving over 400 Thai victims of human trafficking who were discovered working in conditions of slavery in the United States. Her tireless advocacy on behalf of the victims and the success of each case has made her a leading expert and sought-after spokesperson on the serious issue of modern-day slavery.
Chanchanit taught a course entitled “Human Trafficking and Modern-day Slavery” at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures. Because of her deep commitment to creating positive change, she has become a leading practitioner in the field of community development. She is engaged in ongoing affordable housing development, small business promotion, and neighborhood revitalization projects. In 1999, under her leadership, Thai CDC played a pivotal role in the eight-year-long community organizing campaign, which raised community consciousness and led to the designation of the first Thai Town in the nation right here in East Hollywood. For Martorell, the designation of Thai Town was the first step of a multi-faceted economic development strategy to revitalize a depressed section of Hollywood while enriching the City’s cultural and social fiber. Dedicated to social and economic justice, she actively serves in community/immigrant/labor rights organizations with local, national, and global concerns. Chanchanit also founded the Thai New Year Songkran Festival and sponsored arts programming such as the production of the play Fabric about the El Monte Thai Garment Slavery Case and the performance of the Brief but Spectacular Life of Boonsom Palat, about one of the victims from the El Monte Case.
Panida Rzonca is Directing Attorney at the Thai Community Development Center, where she manages the delivery of comprehensive social and legal services to victims, which includes assistance in reporting trafficking to law enforcement and assisting victims in obtaining immigration status, restitution, and ultimately, justice. Her experience includes representing 25 victims of sex trafficking who were called upon to testify in United States v. Michael Morris, et al. and United States v. Sumalee Intarathong, et al., where 36 defendants were found guilty by a federal grand jury. Additionally, she provides immigration remedies to victims through the T Visa and other means. Panida provided immigration services and referrals to hundreds of victims involved in the Global Horizons Thai agricultural labor trafficking case. She also administered claims for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission connected with the EEOC v. Global Horizons. et al. amounting to over $12M restored to victims.