The trafficking of Lao nationals to neighboring Thailand as undocumented laborers continues to be a growing problem with brokers arranging for thousands to be taken across the border for job opportunities that too often end up in situations where Laotians are abused by their employers.
The phenomenon prompted the U.S. State Department this year to downgrade Laos to Tier 3 status on its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, which ranks 188 countries as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3, based on whether they meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking set by U.S. law.
The Lao government has not fully met the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and has not showed overall greater efforts to do so, though authorities continued to prosecute and sentence a modest number of traffickers, provide job assistance to some returned victims, and conduct awareness-raising activities in Lao communities at high risk of forced labor for large-scale infrastructure projects, the most recent report said.
Phinh (not her real name), a 21-year-old Laotian who was abused by a Thai employer for five years in Damnoen Saduak district of western Thailand’s Ratchaburi province, is one of the fortunate ones. She was rescued by Thai police and returned to her village in Bachiangchaleunsouk district of southwestern Lao’s Champassak province in October, and her employer was arrested.
Phinh was able to return to her family with assistance from the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), whose mission is to increase migrant workers' access to their fundamental rights in Thailand and facilitate their integration into Thai society, and from the secretariat of anti-human trafficking under Lao’s National Steering Committee on Anti-Human Trafficking.
“I’m happy to be home, happy to see my father and mother,” Phinh told RFA’s Lao Service after she returned to her village. “I will work on the family's cassava plantation. I will help my family.”
Phinh's mother told RFA that she and her husband thought about the young woman a lot while she was gone, and that they would all have a welcome home meal of chicken and pork.
“We are so happy,” she said.
Phinh is typical of the thousands of Laotians trafficked each year to neighboring Thailand, according to LPN, where some are forced to work under slave-like conditions and are subjected to physical or sexual abuse.
Like many young women who are trafficked, Phinh was physically abused by her Thai employer while she was in the country illegally.
Phinh is the fourth of six children born to impoverished parents in Kuangsi village, situated along kilometer No. 6 of Bachiangchaleunsouk district.
Though her parents were poor, they wanted all of their children to have good futures, so they sold their water buffaloes to pay for them to go to school.
Phinh is the only child who failed to complete even the first year of primary school because she did not like studying. Instead, she stopped going to school and starting helping her parents to plant rice.
“In 2013, when I was 16 years old, there was a Lao middleman from my own village who came to urge me and my friends to go with him to work in a factory in Thailand,” she said.
“Back then I did not think much and did not listen to my parents when they warned me not to go, because in my heart I only wanted to go to Thailand,” she said. “I wanted to experience life in Thailand, which I had only seen on TV.”
Source country for trafficking
Laos serves as a source country for human trafficking, with Lao nationals exploited primarily to Thailand for labor and sexual services. Though some opportunities for regular labor migration exist, a significant proportion of worker movement from Laos to Thailand is irregular and illegal, experts and NGOs say.
This creates conditions in which Lao nationals seeking better jobs elsewhere in Southeast Asia are susceptible to exploitation in the commercial sex trade, garment factories, domestic services, agricultural and construction industries, and the fishing and seafood sectors, according to the United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT).
Phinh and four of her friends from Kuangsi village each asked their parents for 1,000 Thai baht (U.S. $30), the fee quoted by the middleman for a border pass into Thailand, and went with a relative to see the man to discuss going to Thailand for work.
Foreign traffickers are increasingly collaborating with local Lao middlemen, also known as brokers, to facilitate trafficking, according to the latest “Trafficking in Persons” report.
But Phinh sensed that something was wrong when the broker drove a van to the road leading to her house to pick her and her friends up for the journey. He also stopped at other villages to pick up Laotians who were going to Thailand for work.
“It must have been around 20 people altogether, including male teenagers and some around 40 years old,” she said.
The van stopped at a Lao-Thai border checkpoint where each passenger had to pay 1,000 baht to the broker so he could pass the money on to border guards as a passage fee.
The van then entered Ubon Ratchathani province in northeastern Thailand's Isan region on the border with Laos and Cambodia.
“None of us saw anything in Thailand,” Phinh said. “We just saw our own Lao broker standing there at the border gate on Thai soil waiting for us [to get out of the van] and leading us to a parked car where two men from northeastern Thailand waiting.”
The broker handed Phinh and the other Laotians over to the men, who confiscated their family books and border passes, Phinh said, referring to identification documents issued to Lao citizens by the government, which list the bearer's immediate family members.
While the broker returned to the Lao side of the border, the two Thais drove the 20 Laotians away to an unknown destination. After some time had passed, they asked the men where they were heading.
One man told them they were being taken to a factory where they would be given work. He also told them not to worry and to try to get some sleep because it would take a long time to reach their destination, Phinh said.
The next morning, the van stopped in front of a two-story house, and the two Thais led Phinh and the others inside where two other men and a woman were waiting for them.
“The three Thai individuals gave money to the two men, but I do not know how much,” Phinh said. “But I know it was a lot. Then the two Thais left and drove away.”
The three people inside the house made some phone calls, and soon after another person arrived and selected Phinh as a worker, she said.
Others came to look at the Laotians, so Phinh assumed it was because of the phones calls.
That was how Phinh came to work as a housemaid for Jei Pong. She said she does not know what happened to her four friends or the rest of the Laotians with whom she was trafficked.
Jei Pong told Phinh that she would pay her 7,000 baht (U.S. $211) per month, but during the first few months her salary would be only 1,000 or 2,000 baht because Jei Pong had to pay to the people in the “safe house” 5,000 baht (U.S. $151) to take Phinh away.
“At first, Jei Pong treated me well, and sent 5,000 baht to my mother at home in Laos,” Phinh said. “When I called to check, my mother said she had really received the money.”
During the second month, Jei Pong said she was going to send 10,000 baht (U.S. $302) to my mother.
“I was so happy when I heard that,” Phinh said.
But this time, she could not call home to check with her mother to see if she had received the money because Phinh’s cell phone was taken away from her.
After six months on the job, Jei Pong began scolding Phinh and physically abusing her if she worked more slowly than her employer thought she should be working.
Jei Pong hit Phinh frequently, in one instance delivering three severe blows, she said.
The first time, Phinh needed stitches after the woman hit her in the head with a flower pot for forgetting to change the flowers in a shrine outside the house.
The second time, Jei Pong hit Phinh on her back with a large wooden rod for ironing clothes too slowly.
The third time, Phinh needed stitches after Jei Pong hit her on the ear with a bottle of mosquito spray because she said the young woman was not working fast enough.
“During the five years I worked in Jei Pong’s house, I got hit all the time with clothes hangers or with anything that was near Jei Pong,” Phinh said. “I had to endure it because I did not know what else to do. I did not have any documents with me, so I did not dare to report it to the police.”
The final blow came on Sept, 27, 2018, when Jei Pong threw boiling water on Phinh’s body, scalding her and leaving scars on her right arm and torso. Her offense: forgetting to cover the pot of boiling water.
A neighbor heard Phinh scream out in agony and called the police. After officers arrived and inspected the house, they took Phinh to the town’s police station and kept her in a holding center for illegal immigrants while they questioned Jei Pong.
Phinh later learned that Jei Pong’s neighbors said the woman has a mental health problem, and that’s why she hit Phinh all the time and threatened to kill her for working too slowly or not hard enough.
“Jei Pong said to me every year that she would let me go home during the Lao New Year [in April], but when the New Year came, she didn’t give me money and didn’t let me go home,” Phinh said.
Thai police have charged Jei Pong with physical abuse and hiring an illegal alien without a work permit, and said they are investigating other possible charges against her.
So far, police have asked Jei Pong to pay 135,000 baht (U.S. $4,070) in compensation and have given the money to Phinh.
‘We need justice for her’
“She has dealt with a lot of hardship under her employer, and now the abusive employer has been arrested,” said Colonel Southiphong Phongpraphaamphay, police commander of Damnoen Saduak district, calling Phinh's ordeal a human trafficking case.
“We need justice for her and for anybody no matter what their nationality is or what country they are from, because she is a human being like us,” he told RFA. “And it’s time for her to have justice and go back to Laos to her father and mother.”
Xoukiet Panyanouvong from the Lao office of UN-ACT said the case is one of both physical abuse and human trafficking.
“Phinh is a human trafficking victim,” she said. “She is now 21 years old, but when she entered Thailand to work, she was only 16. That means that she was tricked when she was still a child.”
The case will be discussed at an upcoming meeting among representatives from LPN, Lao’s anti-human trafficking secretariat, and the Thai government on Nov. 28 in Bangkok, she said.
Xoukiet said police should have sent Phinh to a care center where she could have been mentally and physically evaluated before returning home instead of placing her in a holding center for illegal immigrants.
Samark Thupthany, LPN’s chief rights protection director, said his organization hopes that Laotians who wish to work in Thailand learn a lesson from Phinh’s case.
“If they want to work in Thailand, they should come here legally, and Lao officials should investigate Lao brokers who lure Laotians to work in Thailand to prevent such a case from happening again,” he told RFA.
“We have to help each other be on the lookout [for traffickers], especially for children or girls who come to work in Thailand,” he said. “We must make sure they all have proper official documents in order to prevent any violence or any kind of abuse from happening to them in both Laos and Thailand.”
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Manichanh Phimphachanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.