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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Korean American TK Kim’s sweatshop investigation leads to Hall of Honor

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Pictures of 1995 El Monte garment sweatshop and the workers. [Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum]

After 28 years, the victims of the El Monte Thai Garment Workers exploitation case, commonly referred to as the “El Monte case,” which unveiled “modern-day slavery” crimes, have earned historical recognition.

On September 18, the Department of Labor announced the induction of 20 workers from the El Monte case into the Department of Labor Hall of Honor.

Earning a spot in the Department of Labor Hall of Honor is the highest honor bestowed upon those who have championed labor rights and heightened the awareness of the necessity of better working conditions.

In an official statement, the Department of Labor shared, “The department recognized the group, now known as the ‘El Monte Thai Garment Workers,’ for the resilience and courage they displayed in breaking free from their confinement in a sweatshop in El Monte, California. Their story serves as an important lesson on why continuous vigilance and commitment are essential to prevent such horrific incidents from happening again.”

“I never imagined I would be honored at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. This holds deep significance for me and my family. We pursued a legal case against the companies, we stood in court. I recognize our immense efforts to champion our rights. We influenced the formulation of new laws. It’s an incredible moment to address my family and all of you. I’m overwhelmed by the realization that history will remember me alongside my colleagues,” expressed Maliwan Radomphon Clinton, a member of the El Monte workers group.

The El Monte case unraveled in August 1995 following a raid orchestrated by the California Labor Office.

72 Thai workers were found confined for several years in a dim, windowless garment factory, enduring conditions tantamount to slavery.

As the investigation progressed, the case drew significant attention when it emerged that TK Kim, a Korean American and then Deputy Labor Commissioner, had spearheaded the raid.

The workers, initially enticed by brokers with promises of “lucrative jobs in the U.S.,” found themselves trapped in a factory in El Monte that was deceptively presented as an apartment. Their passports were seized, and they were coerced into contracts that mandated a $5,000 payment to the employer ostensibly for living expenses.

Their daily routine consisted of grueling 19-hour work shifts. Post work, they were packed like sardines in cramped quarters, ten to a room, amidst rats and cockroaches.

Any attempt to escape was met with brutal physical assaults using baseball bats. The appalling conditions encountered during the raid left investigators aghast.

The profound national reverberations of the El Monte case led to legislative changes. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) was formulated, and the T visa, offering residency to victims, was instituted in direct response to the case. The El Monte victims were subsequently accorded permanent resident status through this initiative.

Marking the 25th anniversary of the El Monte case, the Korea Daily reported on an exhibition at the LA Social Justice Museum and an interview with TK Kim in August 2020.

Materials pertaining to the El Monte case, encompassing victim letters, evidence, and raid photographs, are now preserved at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., highlighting a grim chapter in American labor history.

These records were bequeathed to the Smithsonian by TK Kim, who later ascended to the position of senior deputy commissioner at the Kansas Department of Labor and donated them upon his retirement.

Annually, the Department of Labor inducts notable figures into the Hall of Honor. The list of honorees includes former President Ronald Reagan, who successfully brokered contracts securing health insurance and pension benefits for movie stars, as well as luminaries like Helen Keller and Eugene Debs.

Other inductees comprise rescue personnel from the September 11 attacks, Chinese immigrants who contributed to railroad construction, and frontline workers during the pandemic.

BY YEOL JANG    [jang.yeol@koreadaily.com]