September 9, 2023
Sawatdeeka! Good afternoon. Thank you, Maliwan. I remember us being pregnant at the same time, both times, and we have a few pictures of us standing back to back with our pregnant tummies. And today all 4 grown children are here to celebrate you, what you mean to them, and what you mean to the country.
You have already heard how our honorees were trafficked to the United States and held in an apartment complex ringed with barbed wire in a suburb of Los Angeles called El Monte. You've heard how they slept on mats on the floor, crowded 8 or 10 to a bedroom, forced to sew garments
until their fingers were raw and their vision blurred. As proof of what would happen if the workers resisted, the captors caught a worker trying to escape, beat him, and took a picture to show the other workers.
The story made headlines across the United States and around the world. As details came to light, the public was shocked and horrified.
As Nantha said, all the windows were covered with boards.
Sometimes the workers would hear a plane or a helicopter outside, and they would wave through the little sliver of window that was not covered. There is no way they would be spotted, but it was all they could do.
Once the slave sweatshop was exposed, the United States Department of Justice prosecuted the captors-the team that did this is here today.
This story could have ended there-a tragic tale of criminals and their faceless victims, following by a successful government prosecution that landed the offenders behind bars. But the workers, Thai immigrants who did not speak English, and were overwhelmingly women, would NOT remain faceless.
Instead, they did the unimaginable. They fought back, and successfully challenged a multibillion-dollar industry. They filed a lawsuit against the companies they were sewing for and launched a campaign to
hold corporations responsible for the conditions in which their clothes are made. In the process, they demanded access to a legal system that too seldom hears cries for justice from the poor and of color.
By sheer force of will, they forced corporations and government agencies to reexamine their practices. They refused to succumb to societal pressures and cultural norms that told them to stay in the shadows.
Today, we honor them.
Welcome to the Department of Labor. So many people within the Department and with Asian Americans Advancing Justice worked so hard to make this day happen.
Thank you to Kent Wong and Saket Soni – fearless worker advocates and Senator Duckworth, whose remarkable courage on the battlefield and in the Halls of Congress knows no bounds.
Each of them, without exception, responded immediately, “yes,” when l asked if they would come to this event to honor you.
Everyone in this room – from the Biden-Harris administration, Members of Congress, the Department of Labor team, worker advocates, all 300 individuals in this room and the countless others livestreaming this event, they are all here to honor you.
So thank you Nantha and Maliwan for sharing your stories and all of our honorees for being here.
Today is one of the proudest days I've had since joining the Administration.
Because today we honor and celebrate workers: 81 Thai workers whose courage and resilience have had a tremendous impact on the rights of millions of workers today and on the trajectory of so many people.
I am one of those people.
When I first met our honorees, I was a young attorney, working under the mentorship of the visionary civil rights leaders Stewart Kwoh and Karen Narasaki.
As Maliwan said, once "discovered," the workers were not freed; they were thrown into an immigration detention facility. I will never forget those orange prison jumpsuits you were wearing that day, Maliwan, which broke my heart-and proved that criminalizing immigrant workers was not just inhumane but makes it harder for workers to report abuse, including trafficking.
Since that day, and through your fight to stay in the U.S., your commitment to bringing a lawsuit that had never been brought before, your solidarity with the Latino garment workers at the "front shop,” all those meetings we had in three languages that lasted for hours and then after your case was over, the path you’ve paved, businesses you’ve opened, work you’ve done, investments in your communities here and in Thailand, our annual parties with the families you've brought from Thailand and the families you've made here - what a journey you have had.
I know we never imagined being here all together. We never even thought this was possible. And I know for certain I would not be the Acting Secretary of Labor without you and many ways you changed my life.
For so many people who flew across the country to be here, I know there are similar stories, from the young law student just back from the Peace Corps in Thailand who volunteered to help and never left to the public interest investigator who helped us find a key witness, and so many others, all were changed by you, our honorees.
Then there are the thousands of people you've never met but whose lives are better because of what you did: garment workers who got their wages because of the California law Nantha mentioned that holds companies responsible for wage theft of their contractors – a law that exists because of you; thousands of survivors of human trafficking who, like Saket shared, were able to escape their captors and get a T visa – a path to freedom and security that exists because of you; those in the anti-sweatshop movement who are building power among workers in the United States and around the world, including college students demanding that sweatshirts with their universities' names not be made in sweatshops – campaigns that originated with your campaign for justice; the young people who are learning about your case in school and come away believing in their power to make a difference; everyone who has been underestimated because of what we look like, or where we're from, who take on big battles that people say cannot be won – you are proof of what is possible and that we are capable of even more than even we know.
The workers' bravery and unbreakable spirit were so remarkable – and such an important part of our American story – that the Smithsonian Museum of American History included them in an exhibit on sweatshops. And the curators of that exhibit are here today. Around the Great Hall and up in the Hall of Honor space where we will go in a moment, there are artifacts and memorabilia from that exhibit, so please take a look.
What these workers experienced was not an isolated incident. The global economy has left too many behind for too long, leaving workers, especially women workers, with the responsibility to support their families without adequate job options to do so.
Honoring these women and men here today allows us to celebrate how far we've come and acknowledge how much we still have left to do.
It also reminds us that real progress isn't measured only in monetary recoveries or even policy changes.
The most profound change is personal, like our honorees standing up, building power, exercising their rights, and against all odds, defying the message they had heard their whole lives: that they should keep their heads down and know their place.
I want to close by sharing the story of one of the workers who came to the DOL about a year ago to visit but could not get the day off to be here today – another reminder of the constraints that workers face.
As a young girl, Suchadal loved going to school. On the day that she was to begin 2nd grade, she dressed in her second-hand school uniform and waited by the door.
But that day, her parents told her she would no longer be going to school because she had to take care of her two younger brothers while her parents went to work in the fields. Suchadal cried and refused to take off her school clothes. For days, she continued to put on her uniform each morning, hoping her parents would change their minds. They never did.
Many years later, Suchadal found herself working behind barbed wire and under armed guard in the United States. When Suchadal told me this story, I told her I would always do everything I could to fight for workers because I got the education she wanted.
Today, Suchadal is married with a U.S.-born son, Jackie. Like Maliwan's boys, Jackie is an athlete, varsity soccer player his freshman year and MVP of the baseball team.
Jackie also got the Young Historian Award-which is so exciting, given that his mom has actually made history.
Each of the honorees has stories like this, about what makes them strong, hopeful, and brave.
And that is why your place is here in America, where you represent the best of what this country can be. Your place is here, in the Department of Labor's Hall of Honor where you will take your rightful place in labor history.
Some people worship their heroes from afar. I am fortunate to get to share my life and work with mine. Thank you for letting me, and the entire country, be a small part of your story.
Please join me now at the Hall of Honor wall as we unveil our newest inductees.