Lao women held by Chinese-run casino plead for help

The trio signed on to be saleswomen but after weeks of not working, their debts are piling up.
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The Chinese-run Kings Romans Casino dominates the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northwestern Laos' Bokeo province, October 2020.

Three Lao women say they are being held against their will in the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in northwestern Laos, where they went to find work as “chat girls” in a call center for Kings Romans Casino.

When they arrived in mid-December at the SEZ, the women were first quarantined for about 14 days to ensure they did not have COVID-19, they said. The quarantine was extended to almost a month, even though none of them tested positive.

Now they say they are being confined against their will.

The women said that they want to return to their home provinces, but each owes 10,000 yuan ($1,600) to their employers plus expenses for food and accommodations. Their employers will not let them leave the premises until they repay their debts, they said.

Chat girls talk to casino customers by texting them over web applications like Line, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and have to meet a sales quota determined by their employer. But there are hundreds of Lao women doing the same job, which makes it hard for any one of them to meet the targets they are given.

Faced with debts they can’t pay many are at risk of being forced into prostitution.

The first woman, a 32-year-old from Vientiane, told RFA on Tuesday that said she and the others will be confined to the Kings Romans Casino until another employer buys them. One inquired but thought the price was too high.

“We have no choice but to be confined here and waiting to be called to work,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

The woman said the trio wants to be rescued, but Lao authorities cannot easily enter the Chinese-run SEZ, which operates largely beyond the reach of the Lao government.

RFA reported in December that many of the workers are pressured to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. Others get stuck waiting for months confined to small living quarters, including large truck containers.

Nevertheless, poor Lao women flock to the zone in hopes of a making a good living due to a dearth of jobs in other provinces.

A middleman, who arranges for women to move to the SEZ for jobs, said workers who fail to meet their customer quotas typically receive 3,000 yuan (U.S. $475) a month, while those who succeed receive 5,000 yuan (U.S. $790) a month plus a 15% commission.

The woman who spoke with RFA said she applied to an online job ad for positions that paid well and included free accommodations, food and medicine.

“But in practice at the Kings Romans Casino, everything is the opposite,” she said. “If I am hired, I don’t even know how much I’m going to make.”

‘We want to go home’

A second woman who is 21 and arrived at the SEZ from Pakse said she applied for a position in December because her family was experiencing financial difficulties, with her mother ill and her four younger siblings attending school.

“When I arrived, I saw a woman in the room waiting to be hired, and then another woman joined us later from capital Vientiane,” she told RFA. “Now, because of the rising debt, we don’t want to work here anymore. We want to get out of the SEZ.”

Their employer in the meantime continues to charge them for housing, the use of a teapot, food, bedsheets, and medicine, she said.

“Our parents can’t help us either because they have their own expenses, so we don’t want to be trapped here any longer,” the woman said.

The third woman, a 35-year-old also from Vientiane, told RFA that the trio were told they would be tested again for the COVID-19 virus by Jan. 20. If the results are negative, they may be hired to work as chat girls.

“But we don’t want to work anymore,” she said. “We want to go home because it’s not as expected. We can’t afford being quarantined any longer. We can’t wait anymore. All daily living expenses keep pushing our debt to the roof.

“We want to be rescued by the Lao authorities,” said the woman. “We can’t escape because all of our passports and our personal identity documents have been confiscated by the employer.”

The Golden Triangle casino has not responded to efforts by RFA’s Lao Service to seek comment on the chat girl program.

An official at the Labor and Social Welfare Department of Bokeo province, where the SEZ is located, said many Lao women have been trapped there and that officials have rescued some, though he did not explain why Lao authorities were allowed to enter the China-controlled zone in these instances.

“But the Chinese don’t want them to leave because they owe a lot of money,” the official said. “The employer has paid a lot of money to get them here, including their bus fare from their villages.”

The provincial official suggested that the three women submit a well-documented complaint with evidence to the department stating why they want to return home.

“For example, their parents are sick,” the official said. “In that case, they may be allowed to leave.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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