The apartment complex looked innocuous enough.
That it was skirted by a 7-foot wall fringed with barbed wire hardly raised eyebrows, not amid the stark concrete jungle of El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. But as dawn unfurled on Aug. 2, 1995, police officers swooped into the boarded-up rooms of the apartment building and awakened the 72 Thai workers found asleep inside. The event and its consequences, later dubbed the El Monte garment factory case, still echo to this day.
The workers were tightly crammed into small rooms – some for up to seven years – having been lured to America with the promise of high-paying jobs. Once there, they were put to work sewing all sorts of clothing. Eighteen-hour days were the norm, as were wages of no more than $1.60 an hour.
The workers were prisoners. Their passports were withheld, and to dissuade them from running away, their captors threatened retaliation against family members back home. Seven people were eventually found guilty in the case, and sentenced to up to seven years in federal prison. It was the first example of modern-day slavery to hit U.S. shores, where human trafficking is an ongoing problem; in 2016 alone, there were at least 824 labor trafficking cases reported.
Twenty-one years later, Rotchana Sussman is still haunted by memories of her years spent locked away. “I still have nightmares,” she said. “I go back to the time in my dream: It’s dark, the walls are dark, and we have a sad party, everybody in black.” And yet, she considers herself one of the lucky ones.
Sussman, now 47, is a massage therapy teacher, founder of a meal delivery nonprofit, and an entrepreneur. Early this year, she is taking charge of a vegan food stall at a market in LA’s Thai Town, thanks to an initiative spearheaded by the Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC).
The Thai CDC has played an integral role in LA’s growing yet socially and economically divided community, said Chancee Martorell, founder and executive director.
For more than 22 years, the Thai CDC has played a part in some of the most notorious human-trafficking cases in the United States, encompassing garment workers, welders, and domestic laborers, as well as the 2003 Thai farmworkers case involving some 1,200 trafficked laborers.
At the same time, the organization’s small team has provided victims of human trafficking, as well as the city’s broader Thai immigrant community, with tools for long-term economic self-sustainability and growth, making the organization something of a rarity, Martorell said, as a lot of anti-trafficking organizations only help workers with their immediate needs post-liberation.
The Thai CDC helps survivors seek financial restitution, find housing and shelter, and gain access to emergency funding. In 1999, the Thai CDC began leaving its physical footprint across LA, spearheading the transformation of a rundown, six-block stretch of East Hollywood into the first designated Thai Town in the United States – now home to more than 60 Thai-owned businesses, including restaurants, book and grocery stores, as well as a weekly farmers market. The Thai CDC’s offices are located in the basement of a historic Hollywood apartment block that the organization redeveloped in the 1990s, turning the deteriorating building into 46 affordable, multifamily housing units.
The Thai CDC even played a part in a subsidized senior housing project, working in partnership with the nonprofit Little Tokyo Service Center Community to create 60 one-bedroom units for some 100 seniors, many from Thailand.
Still, a large portion of the Thai CDC’s workload is spent guiding trafficked workers through the time-consuming, bureaucratic labyrinth of applying for T visas. Specifically geared toward victims of human trafficking who want to stay in the United States, T visas also allow family members to join them – hugely important, because many victims of the modern slave trade fear returning home because of trafficking organizations still operating in their communities.
“Thai CDC offers the sorts of services that simply aren’t often available to trafficking victims,” said Joanne Lee, directing attorney of the Asian and Pacific Islander Outreach Project at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that frequently offers legal services to the Thai CDC. “To have that training they do to help people become self-sufficient – I think it’s extraordinary. It really helps people on a new path.”
The need for this kind of support is simple: If survivors of human trafficking, many of whom have limited life skills, aren’t given the tools to survive economically, they’ll fall victim to the sorts of predators who lured them into the slave trade in the first place.
“Where it’s profitable for certain industries,” said Martorell, “they’re part of a larger system that leads to exploitation of workers.”
Integral to the Thai CDC’s portfolio of small-business initiatives is the Entrepreneurial Training Program (ETP) – a $108, eight-week course held twice a year that gives budding business owners a broad overview of the sorts of technical and legal minutiae of managing a business. Guest speakers offer practical problem-solving tips. “They don’t usually have an idea about the specific aspects of running a business,” said Supranee May, a business counselor at the Thai CDC, about the typical ETP attendee. “It’s pretty intense.”
“They are highly functional in that they are expert in collaborating with other organizations,” said LA City Council member Mitch O’Farrell, of the Thai CDC’s all-hands-on-deck approach to its work. “There would not be a Thai Town were it not for Thai CDC.”
Arguably the most ambitious collaborative endeavor on the organization’s roster is its Thai Town Marketplace project, where the transformation of an empty retail space at the Metro stop on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue in Thai Town is currently underway.
Scheduled to be completed this spring, the marketplace will feature 12 new food stalls and six retail kiosks, with the potential for about 60 new jobs. Business owners are chosen from the Thai, African American, and Latino communities. And once a purchase agreement has been hashed out, farmers at the weekly farmers market will provide a portion of the food that vendors use.
The idea behind the Thai Town Marketplace is to give first-time business owners (all of whom come from low-income backgrounds) the kinds of support necessary to mitigate the high attrition rate in small-business startups. Only about half of new small businesses survive as long as five years – two-thirds die within 10 years.
In this case, vendors will have about three to five years to prove themselves successful, though they won’t be cast adrift without a helping hand. The Thai CDC will continue to offer one-on-one business counseling and provide office space for all the vendors to share, absorbing many of the office and marketing costs. And if, by the end, their individual ventures are profitable, the Thai CDC will help them move into their own retail spaces, paving the way for the next batch of vendors to take the vacated spots at the marketplace.
“Before the training, I didn’t know how to do taxes, how to get the licenses, how to market the products, or how to test out new products. None of that,” said Sussman, who will run the marketplace’s sole vegan outlet. “It’s given me my own independence, how to learn and understand new things – how to think outside the box.”
Funding for the nearly $3 million project has come from a number of sources, mostly grants and bond proceeds – indeed, the Thai CDC as a whole is predominantly grant-funded, with additional help from donors. But the marketplace hasn’t all been smooth sailing: Some $2 million in funds earmarked for the construction phase of the project, which has been approved by the city and the city’s Bond Oversight Committee, is currently stalled within the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department (EWDD).
Funding headaches aside, there are areas where the organization can be improved, and Martorell identifies one such area as the coordination of better mental health treatment for human-trafficking victims. This is especially important, she said, because of the deficit of Thai-speaking mental health workers, which is exacerbated by a cultural stigma within the Thai community surrounding therapy.
That said, many with long-held ties to the Thai CDC extol the close relationships they’ve forged over the years with the organization’s small team. These relationships have helped them maintain their emotional equilibrium throughout their individual journeys – people like Marut Kongchai, a victim in the Global Horizons case, the largest labor-trafficking case in recent U.S. history. Global Horizons, a Beverly Hills-based farm labor contractor, has been implicated in the trafficking of nearly 1,200 Thai workers to farms all over the United States.
“I was afraid for my life,” said Kongchai, through an interpreter, explaining how he was once held at gunpoint by his captors at a farm in Washington state’s Yakima Valley, an event that enabled his eventual escape in 2005 through an apple orchard under cover of nightfall.
Having fled the farm, Kongchai made his way south to LA. There, Kongchai found work at a Thai restaurant and was introduced to the Thai CDC, which helped him successfully apply for a T visa, and bring his wife and two daughters to the United States. Now that he’s finally paid off the debt he had accrued in Thailand, Kongchai intends to enroll in some of the Thai CDC’s business courses with an aim of starting his own restaurant or spa.
“Thai CDC, they’re synonymous with the community,” he said. “Through them, I’ve come from a place of hell to a sense of warmth and community. It’s a relief that there’s such an organization out there.”
• Daniel Ross wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Daniel is a Los Angeles-based writer. He is frequently featured in the Guardian, Truthout, Vice, and The Huffington Post, among others.