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U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission



Written Testimony of Panida Rzonca
Program Associate
Thai Community Development Center L.A.

I. Introduction

Good morning. Thank you for granting the Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC) the opportunity to participate in this very important hearing today. My name is Panida Rzonca. I am currently a Program Associate at Thai CDC and work primarily in the anti-human trafficking program. The Thai CDC was founded in 1994 by our Executive Director, Chanchanit Martorell, on the idea that all peoples have a basic right to a decent standard of living and quality of life. Yet, in the Thai and other disadvantaged communities, people are living in substandard housing and lack access to basic health services, education and quality employment.

As a social change organization engaged in human rights advocacy and broad based community development, the Thai CDC seeks to empower the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged members of the Thai community. They include poor recent immigrants, low wage workers, welfare recipients and victims of human trafficking.

Our mission is to “advance the social and economic well-being of low and moderate income Thais and other ethnic communities in the greater Los Angeles area through a comprehensive community development strategy including human rights advocacy, affordable housing, access to healthcare, promotion of small businesses, neighborhood empowerment, and social enterprises."

I am also here to represent and speak on behalf of my Executive Director, Chanchanit Martorell, who could not be here today. When I started working at Thai CDC in 2007, I was assisting the victims from the second group of Trans Bay Steel Company Thai workers who were part of the Thai Welders’ Case at a time when we were helping to resettle their families in Northern and Southern California as a result of the settlement reached by the EEOC on behalf of the workers. As my first hand knowledge of this particular case comes at the tail end of the workers' journey, I will read statements by my Executive Director, Chanchanit Martorell, describing the circumstances surrounding the Trans Bay case, our partnership with EEOC in pursuing justice for the workers in the case, and what the ongoing struggle of combating the scourge of human trafficking and modern day slavery entails. She first reported the Thai Welders’ Case to law enforcement in 2002.

II. Summary of the Thai Welder’s Case

She states, “On December 18, 2002, Thai CDC's Director of Administration received a call from a Thai male who had called in search of shelter. Thai CDC staff arranged for shelter at the Thai Temple of Los Angeles and went to pick him up. He then asked to be taken to the place he was housed. He went inside to obtain his belongings and came running out with his belongings after a few minutes with five or six men chasing after him. He then jumped into the car and told Thai CDC staff to “step on it.” He was then taken to the temple.

The following day, Thai CDC staff went to conduct an intake and learned about the circumstances surrounding the man's entry into the United States. After learning about the situation, Iapproached numerous different federal agencies to help the workers. However, I was informed that a case would not be pursued because this case was unique in that it did not fit that of the popular conception of trafficking (women and children forced into sex-slavery) but also represented the new trends of: 1) a growing number of male victims; 2) trafficking from a labor perspective; and 3) a legalized form of trafficking through the guest worker’s program. While the DOL did investigate the case for several months and awarded unpaid back wages for some of the workers at the end of July 2003, it was not complete relief.

In the meantime in 2003, all 48 other workers escaped, some alone, others in groups, from two different locations. The escaped workers shared a similar story of debt, deception, and threats. I, Chanchanit Martorell, have seen these elements time and time again in my work with trafficking victims. I, Chanchanit Martorell, have worked on over a half dozen major cases of human trafficking involving over 600 Thai nationals. These workers' stories were just like the stories of other trafficking victims.

In 2004, dissatisfied with the minimal redress and restitution the workers received thus far, the lack of a criminal prosecution, Thai CDC along with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, an organization, I, Chanchanit Martorell, co-founded, initiated an investigation with the EEOC on behalf of the workers, and filed charges of discrimination based on national origin against the employer, Trans Bay Steel Corporation and the recruiters, Hi-Cap and Kota Manpower Company, on July 23, 2004. I turned to the EEOC because of my over fifteen years of professional relationship with EEOC Regional Attorney, Anna Park,”

III. A Precedent Setting Partnership between EEOC and Thai CDC in Pursuing Justice for Victims

Chanchanit Martorell further states, “The precedent setting partnership with EEOC, especially Anna Park’s ability to recognize a trafficking case, her strong desire to pursue it to the fullest in order to achieve real justice for the victims, her vision to expand the EEOC’s role, and her ability to take on such cases helped the victims of the Trans Bay case finally achieve justice at the end by: 1) obtaining their T visas and 2) reaching a settlement of over $1 million for the workers. These T-visas issued were precedent setting because we believe they were the first issued to male labor trafficking victims and also the first where reporting to a civil law enforcement agency other than a criminal law enforcement agency and the Department of Justice prosecuting a criminal case was accepted. We highly commend and hail the EEOC and Anna’s leadership to pursue and achieve justice for the workers. Her leadership, ingenuity, foresight, and strong sense of justice in expanding the EEOC’s ability and role to accept and pursue trafficking cases now provide victims’ advocates like the Thai CDC yet another greatly needed avenue of justice which in this case is by civil means. As a result of the very positive and ground breaking outcome for the victims stemming from our partnership, Thai CDC is currently working with EEOC on yet another human trafficking and forced labor case.”

IV. The Ongoing Struggle by Thai CDC to Abolish Human Trafficking & Modern Day Slavery

Chanchanit Martorell goes on to state, “Despite the fact that Thailand has become a major source country for trafficked persons and the U.S. has become a popular destination country, the Thai CDC remains the only Thai organization in the U.S. addressing the persistent problem of human trafficking from Thailand to the U.S.

Having worked on the first case of modern day slavery in 1995, the famed El Monte Thai Slavery Case, where Thai CDC mobilized other civil, immigrant and workers' rights organizations to demand justice for workers ultimately leading to many historic and precedent setting victories for trafficked victims that would forever change how victims are perceived, treated, served and fully restored, Thai CDC spawned an anti-trafficking movement and helped found the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, leading to the enactment of the landmark federal legislation in 2000, the Trafficking Victims' Protection Act.

However, the El Monte Thai Slavery Case was just the tip of the iceberg for human trafficking. Since that case, Thai CDC has worked on six more cases involving over 600 Thai victims trafficked for domestic work, sexual exploitation, welding, and agriculture over the past 16 years. The current Thai CDC case involving 1,100 Thai farm workers, made international headline news and has been described as the largest case of human trafficking in U.S. history. Thai CDC tirelessly advocated on behalf of those trafficked which recently resulted in an indictment b the Department of Justice against a recruiter on Septemeber 2, 2010. The indictment demonstrates another victory for Thai CDC after seven years of waging a relentless struggle to bring justice and accountability to hundreds of enslaved Thai farmworkers.

However, as some of our survivors nobly pointed out themselves, their cases were never simply about money because one can never put a price on freedom. It was, and still is, the focal point of another ongoing struggle that is being enacted every day around the world. It is the struggle to bring accountability and justice to an economic system that has grown dependent on the ruthless exploitation of a defenseless and disenfranchised labor force to churn out ever increasing profits of unprecedented proportions. The El Monte case was pivotal as the first major case to receive national attention where the old divisions of race, class, language and ethnicity were wiped away to form a single, united movement focused on the combined issues of human rights and social and economic justice for all workers. Truly, it was the first labor struggle of global proportions our country has seen, proving that if capital could redraw the old boundaries in its favor, so could the people.

But not every trafficking case has victims who feel empowered, or witnesses willing to testify or material evidence. Not every trafficking case is met by a legal team willing and able to champion their cause in court. Not every trafficking case captures the attention of the media. Our work, therefore, has not ended, it has only just begun.

Therefore, the plight of the enslaved Thai welders is the story that people should remember because it is the story of survivors who through their courage, strength, and perseverance brought real change to the U.S. Their story will inspire other trafficking survivors to know that the strength that allowed them to survive their plight can give them the strength to bring about real change.”

V. Forging a Stronger and More Powerful Union to Combat Human Trafficking

Chanchanit Martorell concludes by stating, “Social justice organizations and governments should also forge a stronger and more powerful union that will broadcast throughout the world their determination to put an end to the human devastation caused by trafficking and slavery. It is the work we do on behalf of trafficking victims that often constitutes the true social change work because it is by fighting trafficking and slavery that we challenge all the underlying cultural values which govern the relations between genders and social classes. It is, ultimately, this work which challenges the existing power structure and caste system which make trafficking possible and place so many individuals at risk of losing their most basic human rights.

However, due to the growing federal budget deficit, funding for anti-human trafficking and slavery is faced with the real specter of being eliminated, while human trafficking is growing at a pace that may quickly surpass drug trafficking. In fact, human trafficking and slavery has become the most profitable and second largest criminal activity in the world. Therefore, we want to use this opportunity today to also urge all of you to help us prevent any funding cuts to combating human trafficking because it is our hope that we may all see the day when slavery is truly a thing of the past.”