Twenty-eights years ago, Thai workers at an El Monte sweatshop reported their mistreatment at what the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History described as “one of the most horrendous U.S. sweatshops in modern times.”

As a result, eight operators of the sweatshop were arrested and 72 Thai immigrants were freed from “virtual slavery behind fences tipped with razor wire,” where they were “forced to sew garments in conditions significantly worse than those found in most sweatshops,” the museum said.

After the harrowing experience, the group, commonly referred to as the “El Monte Thai Garment Workers,” pushed for change, creating “legal protections for workers nationwide,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

On Monday, those workers were honored for their impact by Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su, who was joined by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat who was born in Thailand, and UCLA Labor Center Director Kent Wong in a ceremony enshrining the group in the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor.

They join labor luminaries like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in the Hall.

“Honoring these women and men here today allows us to celebrate how far we’ve come and also remember how much more work we have left to do,” Su said in a statement. “It also reminds us that real progress isn’t measured only in monetary wins or even in policy changes. The most profound changes are personal. Like our honorees, standing up, building power, exercising their rights, and against all odds defying the message they have heard their entire lives: that they should just keep their heads down and know their place.” 

El Monte workers get standing ovation
Former workers who were essentially enslaved at an El Monte sweatshop were honored in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18, 2023. (U.S. Department of Labor)

The workers in attendance were given medals to commemorate their honor and received multiple standing ovations from the officials and the crowd.

“I never imagined I would be honored at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. This means so much to me and my family,” worker Maliwan Radomphon Clinton said during Monday’s ceremony. “We brought the case against the companies; we went to the court. I know we worked very hard to stand up here for our rights. We changed the laws. This is very special, to speak in front of my family and all of you. I cannot believe I am going to be remembered in history along with my friends.”