Lao Migrant Youth Increasingly Looking for Work in China

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yunnan-laos Phongsaly province in northern Laos borders Jiangcheng county in China's Yunnan province.

UPDATED at 2:12 P.M. EST on 2018-01-18

Young people from the northern provinces of Laos are increasingly moving across the border to China in search of jobs and higher wages.

Facing limited prospects at home, youth from Laos’ remote mountainous regions choose to become undocumented economic migrants in China’s neighboring Yunnan province, where they can often make much more for similar work they could get at home.

A Lao businessman who often travels to Yunnan told RFA’s Lao Service last week, “A lot of people from the northern ethnic groups prefer working in China over Laos or Thailand because they speak Chinese and can get much more money there.”

The source added that restaurant workers in Yunnan can make between 80 and 100 yuan ($12-$15) each day, or about twice as much as in Laos and slightly more than in Thailand.

“After graduation, many youth sneak into China to work because there are no jobs at home,” said an unidentified official in Phongsaly province to RFA on Tuesday.

“Most of them work as laborers at restaurants, hotels, shops and stores in Jiangcheng, Yunnan Province,” the official said.

The official of Phongsaly’s Gnot-Ou district said that last year 200 youth from seven of his district’s villages went to Sang Seung to work illegally.

Most of them are members of a Chinese ethnic group and they speak Chinese better than they speak Lao, the official said.

China is a popular destination for them because they may already have connections, such as relatives or friends who live there, said the official.

The official also said that security guards from the villages have attempted to stop the flow of young people across the border, but that it was difficult to track them because they sneak into China using small, hidden paths.

Local authorities in China, however have been quite effective in cracking down on these undocumented migrants.

“Recently they arrested an unspecified number of illegal Lao workers and handed them over to us,” he said.

“Actually, several days ago they sent a busload of Laotians to us at the border,” he said.

“They are very serious about this, they arrest every undocumented person they find,” said the official.

In an effort to prevent more youth from leaving, Gnot-Ou district is applying for financial and human resources from the provincial and central governments.

“We’d like to conduct a campaign against this exodus by providing youth and their parents with more information,” he said.

“We also would like to create jobs here at home for them,” he said.

Many youth from Phongsaly’s neighboring Luangnamtha province, are also finding their way across the border to Yunnan.

“Many high school graduates use border passes to go to Cheli City,” a resident of Luangnamtha said, in an apparent reference to Jinghong, the prefectural seat of the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

“With the pass they can only stay for a month. If they overstay, they can’t come back through the normal border checkpoint. They have to sneak back,” he said.

He said that the language barrier is not an obstacle, as the youth can pick up Chinese after working there for about three years.

He added that many of the Lao girls and women from Luangnamtha who cross the border are lured to work at restaurants or brothels, and some even marry Chinese men.

The Gnot-Ou district official said that he did not know how many Laotians were working in China right now, only the numbers from his own district.

Thailand’s Ministry of Labour in 2017 said there were around 170,000 Laotians working legally in the country. 

While the ministry does not provide figures for undocumented workers from specific countries, it estimates that 2 million migrants are working in Thailand without papers. Reports suggest that more than 200,000 of those illegal migrant workers are from Laos.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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