Ten years ago this week, I was awakened by a phone tip that California labor department inspectors were about to free scores of Thai slave workers from a garment factory in El Monte.
"Did you say slaves?" I asked my informant in disbelief, as I hurriedly dressed to go to the site. The Smithsonian Institution in 1998 made this case a part of its exhibit on US sweatshops, calling it a low point in the sad history of US exploitation of undocumented laborers.
Some of the workers had been held prisoner for years in a housing complex crudely remade into a prison sweatshop. The more than seventy slaves were paid less than $2 per hour and never allowed to leave the compound, which was guarded around the clock and encircled by razor wire. They could only shop at a "company store" that sold them basic goods at grossly inflated prices. Montgomery Ward and Federated were among the chains that sold merchandise suspected of originating in the sweatshop.
But for all the horror of the El Monte bust, there also was something terribly mundane about it. After all, the look of the sweatshop, in which cowed workers produced brand-name clothing under abysmal conditions for less than the minimum wage, was not all that much of a departure from the appalling conditions I had witnessed on dozens of other federal and state agency raids of California garment factories. These sweatshops invariably employed Asian and Latin American immigrants whose status as fugitive workers meant that, de facto, they did not enjoy the standard protections provided by labor, occupational safety and health laws.
Although not slaves like the El Monte workers, these workers were desperate enough to be at the mercy of their employers, laboring for little pay in cramped, unhealthy workplaces. And as in El Monte, these workers usually arrived here in global human smuggling operations charging exorbitant fees that took years to pay off.
Indeed, this week, the two California officials who led the El Monte raid a decade ago, Victoria Bradshaw and Jose Millan, will be marking the occasion by conducting raids throughout the state to enforce labor laws all too often ignored to increase profits. Depressingly, these raids are almost certain to unearth abysmal cases of degrading work sites, owed back wages, child labor and sub-minimum wages.
A decade ago, before the El Monte raid, the state had launched a groundbreaking effort to hold employers accountable for working conditions in industries reliant on undocumented labor.
At the time, Bradshaw, a former department store executive, held the appointed position of state labor commissioner under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, and her top aide was a civil service lawyer, Millan, who had been raised in the barrios of East Los Angeles.
Together, they fashioned a win-win program that stressed that workers, no matter their immigration status, were entitled to the protection of laws governing the workplace. Needing the workers as witnesses against lawbreaking bosses, they deliberately excluded Immigration and Naturalization Service agents from their raids, encouraging the workers to file complaints and serve as witnesses in hearings.
This wildly successful approach, dubbed the Targeted Industries Partnership Program, sent a shock wave throughout California's garment and agricultural industries. One positive result was to help level the playing field for those employers who obeyed the law but saw their profit margins slashed by those competitors that did not.
Despite the obvious benefits of this approach, it was not welcomed by other officials dealing with immigration on the federal level; the Department of Labor under President Clinton offered tepid support, at best. Worst of all, when Democrat Gray Davis replaced Wilson as governor, he basically whacked the program in a misguided attempt to please the business community. Workplace inspections fell to less than 100 a year for the entire state.
Luckily, in one of his few sensible acts since being elected, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has resuscitated efforts to enforce California labor laws by bringing back Bradshaw and Millan -- as secretary and deputy secretary, respectively, of the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
This week, they will conduct about 100 workplace raids throughout the state, again treating oppressed employees, whether documented or not, as the victims of a crime rather than as perpetrators.
That mainstream Democrats and top labor union officials have been at best indifferent and often hostile to this sensible approach, while at least some Republicans have been supportive, indicates that this is hardly a partisan issue.
And why should it be? It makes sense for everybody involved, except those who break the law and exploit the vulnerable.
By Robert Scheer
Reprinted with permission from The Nation