LOS ANGELES — IT was so shocking few could believe it was true.
But there they were, 72 Thai immigrants forced to work around the clock, hunched over sewing machines in an apartment complex ringed by razor wire. The Thais were paid 69-cents an hour and allegedly threatened with rape and murder if they stopped working before repaying the cost of being smuggled to America.
This month's raid of a sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., just east of Los Angeles, has triggered an outcry over the prison labor conditions that went on for seven years. Although an extreme case, it has led to allegations of misconduct against a federal agency, spurred a $5 million lawsuit leveled at top retailers, and could lead to a major shake-up in the practices of the nation's billion-dollar garment industry.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich threw the federal government's support behind a bid to collect $5 million in back wages Aug. 14, naming 14 manufacturers and 18 retailers, including Sears, Neiman Marcus, and Filenes. The firms bought garments from what he called the ''slave labor'' compound.
Experts say the raid is raising questions and may prompt an investigation of how the INS polices illegal immigrant labor.
''This is long overdue,'' says Julie Su, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Center here, which represents the Thai workers in a suit for back wages. ''That's why it's so infuriating that it took a case like this to get people involved,'' she says. ''The garment industry is one of the most abusive industries in the country.''
Those pushing for reform admit that the conditions the Thai workers endured were unusually harsh. They were allowed outside of the guarded compound only once each year, New Year's Day, and forced to work until they dropped from exhaustion But labor studies show the garment industry is rife with lawlessness.
By some estimates, 15,000 laborers, out of 120,000 in Los Angeles's garment industry, work in illegal sweatshops. And a study conducted last year by California's Labor Department found that 50 percent of the 69 garment manufacturers investigated did not pay minimum wage. More than 60 percent paid no overtime. And more that 90 percent were guilty of breaking health and safety codes.
The garment industry in Los Angeles is the largest in the nation, having grown 40 percent since 1990, outpacing New York City. With a steady stream of immigrants, weaker unions than some cities, and contacts in the Pacific Rim, Los Angeles is well-suited for this notoriously difficult to regulate industry. And, the current practice of restocking stores at short notice, says Steve Nutter, regional director of the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees, makes it more important than ever to keep sewing factories close by.
So, to Mr. Nutter, the outcome of the early morning raid on Aug. 2, when state and local law enforcers descended on the seven-unit compound, was no surprise. ''What happened here should not be seen as an anomaly,'' he says. ''It should be seen as the natural outcome of industry trends.'' Six Thais have been charged with harboring illegal immigrants and two more are accused of transporting the Thai workers. The sweatshop is assumed to be part of an international network of illegal labor. A preliminary court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17.
The El Monte sweatshop is not the industry norm. ''That would be like saying the entire investment banking industry is like Ivan Boesky,'' says Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at Pepperdine College in Malibu, Calif.
Calls for an investigation of the INS role in the Thai sweatshop have become so widespread by labor unions, local media, civil rights lawyers that the spokeswoman for the INS's western district is referring calls on the case to Washington.
The INS has been harshly criticized for not following up on a tip in 1992 from a woman who escaped the sweatshop through an air-conditioning duct and for not accompanying state authorities in the early August raid.
''We were unable to acquire enough evidence for a search warrant,'' says Carole Florman, INS spokeswoman in Washington, defending the agency for closing the case in '92 without action. ''We do not feel that the INS acted inappropriately,'' Ms. Florman says.
''What's distressing to us is what began as a model of state-federal cooperation has been distorted into a story of INS incompetence,'' she says.
Cracking down on illegal sweatshops falls into a gray area between state and federal labor agencies and the INS. If an illegal immigrant reports abuses to labor officials, the INS may be notified and the worker deported, says Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Immigration Rights Project. ''There's no strict separation between the federal enforcement of immigration and violations in the workplace,'' he says.
In addition to putting the INS on the defensive, this case may also prompt a cleanup of the garment industry.
California labor officials plan to subpoena the records of 16 manufacturers suspected of having done business with the alleged front firms for the El Monte factory.
But it will be difficult to hold the 18 retailers named by the Labor Department legally responsible for the actions of their contractors, unless it can be proved that the retailers knew they were doing business with an underground firm.
''We've made it clear that Montgomery Ward had no knowledge of this operation and will have no part of such deplorable labor conditions,'' said Barnard Brennan, chairman of the Chicago-based retailer Montgomery Ward & Co.
A bill passed by the California legislature but vetoed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1992 and '94 would have made apparel manufacturers and retailers liable if they violated labor laws knowingly or unknowingly. Bill sponsors say that it now has a greater chance of passing when state lawmakers reconvene at the end of August.
The Thai case highlights the pressure US garment-makers face to compete against low-cost imports ''The good part of the Wal-Martization of America is that prices are kept low,'' Pepperdine's Mr. Kotkin says. ''The bad part is that the pressure on wages is terrible.''