Lao initiative to register workers in Chinese-run SEZ has limited success

It aims to protect employees from mistreatment by employers, but the response has fallen short of expectations.
By RFA Lao
A view of Kings Romans Casino in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in northern Laos' Bokeo province, Aug. 1, 2022.
Citizen journalist

A Lao government initiative to register workers in a Chinese-run special economic zone in the northern part of the country to protect them from human trafficking and other abuses has had limited success, as workers balk at paying the fees and fear that signing up will get them sent home, sources said.

The measure is aimed at protecting domestic and foreign workers, many of whom are young women, from abuse and exploitation by their employers, especially those who work in the Kings Romans Casino in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Bokeo province.

Chinese-run enclaves in Southeast Asia have come under heavy scrutiny in recent months after hundreds of Taiwanese nationals were rescued after being lured into human trafficking and abusive jobs scams in Cambodia, with many victims taken to work in Chinese-owned casinos in the coastal city of Sihanoukville.

In addition to the cost, some workers who have entered the SEZ illegally are afraid to register out of fear they will be sent back home.

So far, the government has registered 1,267 workers, only a fraction of the workers in the zone, although the exact number employed in the SEZ is unknown, according to Lao officials.

“They [workers] should register, so they can work to get pay,” an official from Bokeo province’s Department of Labor and Social Services told RFA on Monday. He said the process to register was simple.

The SEZ is a gambling and tourism hub catering to Chinese citizens situated along the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. In 2018, the U.S. government sanctioned the Chinese tycoon who is said to run the SEZ as head of a trafficking network.

Middlemen working on behalf of the casino actively recruit mostly young Lao women to work as “chat girls” to scam men on social media platforms into buying shares of the company. Those who fail to meet their sales quotas have been detained against their will by their employers and in some cases have been physically abused or sold off to work in the zone’s sex industry, RFA reported in December 2021.

Officials still don’t know exactly how many Lao and foreign workers have jobs in the SEZ, though they have urged all employers and companies there to register their employees, the official said. 

Lao officials also are encouraging employers in the Boten Special Economic Zone in neighboring Luang Namtha province to register their workers, he added.

Small groups have trickled in to complete the process since the government began registering Lao workers earlier this month, but officials had hoped between 400 and 500 employees would register daily, the official said.

“The middlemen who send Lao workers to work in the Golden Triangle SEZ said most Lao workers don’t want to register due to the high fees they have to pay to register, because some companies will not pay it for them,” said the Lao official, who declined to be named so he could speak freely. 

Foreign workers from neighboring countries who work in the SEZ must pay 150,000 kip (U.S. $10) to register, while Lao citizens must pay about 75,000 kip (U.S. $5). The workers must also cover the cost of a 250,000-kip (U.S. $16) annual health exam, the Lao official said. 

Employers or new workers must cover other costs to secure jobs and travel to the SEZ, passport fees, and fees for other legal documents so they can work and stay in the zone. 

Illegal entry

Most workers do not want to register and do not want Lao officials to know where they work, a middleman who arranges for people to work in the zone told RFA.

“Now, mostly they will enter the SEZ illegally, so legal documents are not important to them,” he said. “They came past the border entry without registering, and there are more like this because it’s the same case for workers already in the zone.”

A Laotian who works in the construction sector told RFA he completed the registration so that he is protected under the law should he encounter problems with his employer.

“If any workers don’t want to register because they have no money, they can tell the middlemen or employers where they work, and they will help them register,” he said.

“If they want to work in the zone without registering, they still can do that, and the Chinese employers will take them in,” said the worker who declined to provide his name so he could speak freely.

Workers who want to avoid the registration process will continue to enter the area illegally, he added.

A Laotian who has worked in the SEZ for many years praised the government’s decision to register both domestic and foreign employees in the zone so that they are protected under Lao law.

Without such a system in place, employers would abuse workers, he said.

“[By] using the new system, they [authorities] will take care of workers when they have problems,” he told RFA.  

The Lao government is focusing on registering Lao workers first and will turn its focus to registering illegal foreign workers, such as Chinese, Burmese and other nationalities, in 2023, officials said.

There is no need for foreign workers who come to the SEZ legally to register, and all workers, legal or illegal, are protected under Lao law, an official from the zone told RFA. 

RFA reported in late July that authorities in northern Laos called on businesses in the SEZ to suspend the hiring of Laotians to work as “chat girls” in an effort to curb abuses, including human trafficking.

Translated by Sidney Khotpanya for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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