Lao workers, many of them young and some still in their teens, have poured in growing numbers this year into neighboring Thailand, braving exploitation and unsafe work conditions in search of employment to help support families back home, sources in the Southeast Asian nation say.
Many are encouraged by their parents to go abroad for work, sources say. Others are trafficked and held in debt-traps, or are killed in accidents at work or on the road.
On Monday, the bodies of nine Lao migrants killed on Aug. 18 in a head-on collision while traveling to a border town to renew the tourist visas on which they had entered Thailand were returned to their families. A tenth was cremated in Thailand.
Speaking recently to RFA’s Lao Service, an official with the Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare said that many Lao who look for jobs in Thailand have not yet finished school.
“Some of them have not completed high school,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“These workers are 15, 16, or 17. Their parents push them to go out and earn money, and in Thailand they work at restaurants or in construction,” he said. “Most of them go there of their own free will, hoping they can make money to help their families.”
“They won’t say they are going there to work, though. Instead, they say they are going to visit relatives, or as tourists, and we can’t stop them,” he said.
Ministry figures indicate that at the beginning of this year, 207,561 Lao migrants were working legally in Thailand, with about 30,000 illegal workers also present in the country. Figures published in May by the Thai Labor Ministry showed 278,485 Lao workers registered in Thailand, however.
The number of Lao migrants working illegally in Thailand illegally was not known, the Thai ministry said.
Poverty at home
Many of those looking for work in Thailand voice concerns over family poverty as their reason for leaving home.
“A friend who is working at a restaurant in Bangkok called me, and so I came. I’ve been working here since June and will go back home in September,” one 22-year-old Lao woman told RFA.
“I need money for myself and for my family, because we’re poor farmers,” she said, adding that she earns $400 each month but has to work hard from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day.
“We live in the countryside, where are no jobs and there’s nothing to do,” another young Lao woman, a resident of Khammouane province, told RFA in an interview in July. “So I come here to make money and send it home to pay our family’s debts.”
Many young Laotians enter Thailand with the help of middle-men to work illegally, with many later trapped in debt to their employers while others simply vanish.
In Sekong province in southern Laos, where many young people have left to go to Thailand, a provincial anti-human trafficking unit official told RFA his department lacks the funds and human resources to stop or slow the trade.
“Recently, two girls left,” he said. “One has come back, and the other disappeared.”
Lao migrants travel back and forth every day through the Chong Mek-Vangtao check point at the border between Champassak province in Laos and Thailand’s Ubol Ratchthany province, Thai border inspector Ponrpirom Yuthaboon told RFA on Aug. 21.
“Many work illegally, and then they get arrested. And sometimes they don’t return home through this gate.”
Loopholes in the law
Some Lao workers enter Thailand as tourists, Samak Tapthanee—head of the anti-trafficking unit of the Thai-based Labor Rights Promotion Network—told RFA.
“Some just have border passes. Others carry passports and then work without a permit. Then they travel to border provinces to renew their visa, which allows them to stay in Thailand for another one to three months.”
“This is one of the loopholes in Thailand’s laws, and this is a problem right now,” he said, adding that some Lao workers will not even go back to Laos to have their passport stamped, but will go to the border with Myanmar or Cambodia instead.
On arrival in Thailand, many young Laotians are handed off from one employer to another, some told RFA in interviews.
“A middle-man told me that he would take me to Bangkok to work in a factory, but instead he gave me to another Thai man who sold me to a karaoke bar,” one young girl named Phin from Pakse city in Champassak province told RFA.
Other Lao girls are sold to entertainment venues, restaurants, or factories, Phin said, with employers paying between $250 and $500 to a second middle-man, and employers then deducting pay from the girls’ paychecks every month until their “debt” is paid.
Many of these women and girls are then sexually exploited, with some entrapped by relatives back home, sources told RFA.
“My own aunt, my father’s sister, asked me whether I wanted to visit Thailand, and two of my girlfriends went with me,” one 17-year-old said, speaking to RFA following her return to Laos.
“We crossed the Mekong River, and a Thai woman picked us up at the border and we traveled for a long distance. We then came to a karaoke bar somewhere in Thailand, and my aunt left.”
The girl and her friends were then forced to “serve” customers, and when they tried to leave were told they each owed the bar owner $4,500, the amount the van driver and the girl’s aunt had been paid for them, she said.
All three escaped from the bar and returned home last year.
In another case, a 17-year-old girl was lured to Thailand’s Narathiwat province three years ago to work in a restaurant but was forced into sex work at a karaoke bar, a Thai immigration officer told RFA in a recent interview.
“Later, she became pregnant,” the Thai officer said. “[Recently], she escaped and found her way back to Laos, where she was helped by an NGO.”
“Thai police have arrested the two owners of the bar,” the officer said, adding that the girl’s baby was born deformed because she had contracted syphilis while working at the bar.
In other cases, Thai employers underpay undocumented Lao workers and then threaten them with arrest by the police if they complain, sources say.
In February, a young couple in their 20s from Saravan province entered Thailand as tourists and stayed to work illegally as a security guard and a housekeeper, they told RFA. Paid less than they were promised, they were then not paid at all for the last three months of their employment, and finally went to the police themselves to complain, they said.
Speaking to RFA, the husband said he and his wife are now in hiding, protected by the Labor Rights Promotion Network, while they seek authorities’ help to recover the money they are owed.
“According to Thai law, we should be paid, and as soon as we get our money we’ll go back home,” he said.
Also speaking to RFA, an official with Thailand’s Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare said the Lao couple will get their pay, adding, “Our job is to protect and help workers without discriminating against particular nationalities.”
“If they worked, they will be paid,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.