Some 50 underage girls from Laos and other neighboring countries have been working under dangerous conditions in Thai factories, with some suffering from rotting toes and fingers, according to police.
They were rescued in separate raids on two factories and are now undergoing rehabilitation as the Thai authorities prepare to file charges against the errant plant operators.
The raids followed a tip off and highlighted the vulnerability of underage migrant workers to human trafficking syndicates in the region, officials and relief workers said.
On Jan. 11, two young Lao girls escaped from a vegetable pickling facility in Thailand’s Nonthaburi province, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Bangkok, and informed police that their friends were still held captive there by the factory’s owner.
The girls told police that, while they had been receiving pay, they had been forced to work extremely hard for at least 10 hours a day.
They said that they were required to wake up by 2 a.m. to continue their work and that if they did not work hard enough, they would be beaten by factory officials.
The next day, police raided the factory and rescued 50 more girls, many of who were under the age of 15.
Police Captain Tanupon Panswat, head of Thailand’s anti-human trafficking unit, said that in addition to strenuous working conditions, many of the girls were suffering from rotted toes and fingers because they were forced to handle chemicals purportedly used for processing the vegetables.
“All of these little girls lived in a very tightly packed place,” Panswat said.
“These 50 little girls–most of them are under 15 years old. Their parents paid women traffickers 8,000 baht (about U.S. $250) each to work at these factories.”
The girls said that they had been told by the traffickers that they would receive jobs at a candy factory, but ended up with jobs involving the processing of vegetables.
Last week, officials from the Lao embassy in Bangkok began working with Thai police on the investigations.
Lao officials found that 15 of the 50 girls were from Laos, while the rest were citizens of various other Southeast Asian nations.
Among the 15 Lao girls, 12 were under 15 years of age and the remaining three were just over 18 years old.
The girls were sent to a rehabilitation center outside of Bangkok where they are being taught new skills and receiving therapy.
One of the officials at the center said the girls will remain there until their employer is charged so that they can testify against him and sue for back wages.
“We have an expert who will focus on rehabilitating the children and reducing the stress they have experienced from this incident,” she said.
“[We] will coordinate with the Lao embassy here in Thailand and when they are [healthy and their cases are resolved] they will be sent back to Laos.”
The raid on the vegetable factory followed an incident on Jan. 7 in which two 14-year-old Lao girls escaped from a copper factory in Bangkok and reported similar working conditions to police.
An official of a child protection foundation that the girls were eventually sent to said they were discovered on a bus leaving the capital.
“Police saw these children on a bus traveling from Bangkok to Korat city. When asked, the girls said they escaped from a factory in Bangkok and that they wanted police to rescue a friend of theirs who escaped once but had been recaptured by their employer,” the secretary said.
“As for themselves, they said they had been forced to work hard, were not allowed to leave the factory, and were not paid.”
After referring the girls to the child protection foundation, police went to the factory to confront the owner, and rescued a 16-year-old boy and girl that had been locked in a small room.
The factory owner said he had not paid the children because he had already paid human traffickers 5,000 baht (U.S. $165) to “buy” each of them. The human traffickers, he said, had originally paid the parents of the children to take them away.
The rescued workers said they were physically abused and worked under extremely demanding conditions from 8 a.m. until midnight each day.
The U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights report lists Thailand as a source, transit, and destination for victims of human trafficking for a variety of purposes, including work at factories.
“Trafficked women and children (particularly girls) were often victims of sexual exploitation,” the report said.
“Foreign trafficking victims within the country included persons from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.