Hundreds of Lao women trapped in Chinese-run SEZ, unable to pay off debt

Most are ‘exploited, abused and victimized by human trafficking,’ says women’s rights organization.
2022.03.08
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Lao women, whose faces have been blurred to protect their identity, work as 'bar girls' in the Golden Triangle SEZ in northern Laos' Bokeo province, February 2022.
Courtesy photo

On International Women’s Day, members of the official Lao Women’s Union say that women in the Southeast Asian country still lack equality and suffer significant exploitation, violence and human trafficking — especially those who are recruited to work in a Chinese-run special economic zone.

Poverty has driven many to seek purportedly well-paying jobs in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northern Laos’ Bokeo Province. Dominated by the Chinese-owned Kings Romans Casino, the SEZ is notorious for illegal drug activity and human and wildlife trafficking.

Businesses operating in the SEZ recruit Lao women to work as barmaids or “chat girls” who text casino customers over web applications like Line, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, promising them healthy rates of return if they invest in the company. They often have ambitious sales quotas that are difficult if not impossible to meet while they pile up “debts” for food and housing.

“Many of our women and girls are exploited, abused and victimized by human trafficking,” said a member of the Lao Women’s Union of Nomo district in neighboring Oudomxay province. “They’re from poor families, uneducated, unaware of the risk, and sold.”

When the women cannot pay their debt, they are forced into prostitution and held against their will by their employers, who know that local authorities cannot easily enter the Chinese-run zone, which operates largely beyond the reach of the Lao government. The employers also have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to hold the women, even though they tested negative for the virus or had been vaccinated.

“During the last two years, or during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Laotians have lost their jobs, and in the last five months, hundreds of them, especially women, have been attracted by online ads about well-paying jobs with free food and free accommodations at the Golden Triangle SEZ and decided to take the jobs,” said a member of the central government-level Lao Women’s Federation.

“In reality, it’s the opposite, and many of the women are forced to sell sex,” she said. “So far, at least 19 women have been rescued from the SEZ.”

Members of a special provincial task force were able to rescue the women earlier this year only after they formally requested authorities’ help and could prove their identities.

But hundreds of others remained trapped by their employers in the SEZ and are still trying to get out, though they have request help from Lao authorities, according to women who got out.

“Wanted! Good-looking girls”

A 22-year-old from Luang Prabang province who is among the women trapped in the SEZ told RFA that she and her younger sister responded in November 2021 to an online ad that said, “Wanted! good-looking girls and women, 18-35 years old, able to speak Chinese, Lao, Thai and English, can earn up to 5,000 yuan (U.S. $767) a month.”

They initially were hired that month as online chat girls at the SEZ, but when they could not perform their job duties, they were “sold” two weeks later to a brothel, she said.

“Besides us, many other Lao women have also been lied to,” said the women who declined to provide her name for safety reasons. “All of us have been requesting help or to be rescued from the authorities for weeks since Feb. 9.”

The woman said she contacted members of Bokeo province’s special task force on Facebook multiple times, leaving her phone number and messages asking them to call.

“They never did,” she said. “Now, we’re still waiting.”

“Since I first contacted the authorities, more than 30 other women in the Golden Triangle SEZ have come up to me and asked me how to get help,” said the women. “I gave them the contact numbers. So far, none of us have been helped. We’ve lost all hope for the rescue from the authorities”

The woman also said that she and her sister have no money to buy food. She called her mother to tell her that the authorities had not responded to her request for help, but her mother didn’t know what to do.

“Both of us cried,” the woman said. “She just told me to be patient and just listen to the employer. How can I listen to my employer? He’s forcing us to do this [work as prostitutes].”

“If we refuse to serve customers, we’ll be scolded,” she said. “We don’t deserve to do this kind of job. We’re forced to do it every day and every night, even when we have menstrual periods or are sick.”

'Just work to pay back debt'

A 26-year old from Xayaburi province who has been trapped in the SEZ for more than three months along with her 23-year-old sister said she contacted the authorities countless times because they wanted to leave and return to their home.

“We can’t stay here any longer because the longer we stay, the more debt we owe,” she said. “We can’t do anything or go anywhere. For example, if we go out to buy food, we’ll be fined. If we stay, we won’t make any money. We’ll just work to pay back debt.”

When the woman, who owes her employer 16,400 yuan (U.S. $2,516), asked where the debt came from, she was told that it stemmed from COVID-19 tests and blood tests.

Her sister told RFA that she has been confined to her room several times after she went out to buy food.

“The employer said that I was trying to escape,” she said.

When RFA contacted Bokeo province’s special task force in late February about women still trapped inside the SEZ who wanted to leave, an official said to give him their phone numbers. He also said to provide the women with his phone number so they could call for help.

When RFA called the police department in Bokeo’s Tonpheung district, where the SEZ is located, an officer said to give the trapped women the department’s phone number and that officers would instruct them as to what to do.

“Our district has a specific task force whose job is to help those women,” said a member of the Lao Women’s Union of Tonpheung district.

“I’m going to call the team right now and ask them to call the women.”

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

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