Lao authorities rescue nearly 500 workers from Golden Triangle SEZ

Police in northwestern Laos’ Bokeo province rescued nearly 500 trapped workers in the past year, including about 200 women who were victims of human trafficking in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, a provincial official said.

Bokeo Deputy Gov. Khamphaya Phompanya told Kikeo Khaykhamphithoune, Laos’ deputy prime minister and chairman of the National Committee on Anti-Human Trafficking, during a June 14 meeting that police rescued 477 workers between May 2021 and May 2022.

The smallest and least populous province in the landlocked country is home to the SEZ, a gambling and tourism hub catering to the Chinese 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.

Most of those rescued have been Lao nationals lured by middlemen to perform jobs as scammers trying to convince people to invest or buy shares in the Kings Romans Casino. When they couldn’t meet their sales quotas, they were detained against their will, and in some cases sold off to work in the sex industry.

“Our police department estimates that there are a lot of workers who are still being abused in the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo province and haven’t been rescued,” Khamphaya said during the meeting. “Rescuing workers in the SEZ is not easy because the SEZ is controlled by the Chinese, and not accessible by the Lao authorities.”

Lao authorities cannot easily enter the Chinese-run zone, which operates largely beyond the reach of the Lao government. Provincial police officers have been able to rescue workers being held against their will by their employer only after the women have contacted the authorities.

At the end of the meeting, Kikeo said that the Lao government began implementing a five-year anti-human trafficking plan to crack down on human trafficking nationwide in 2021.

Bokeo province officials have put in place their own measures to protect SEZ workers. In February, they began requiring all employers to sign labor contracts that ensure workers have a safe workplace, insurance benefits and fair wages.

The authorities also prohibit forced labor and require regular monitoring and reporting of work and living conditions to the provincial management office. Once the contracts are signed, workers receive a province-issued smart card showing their identity and the name of their employer.

Labor contract disputes

A Bokeo province police officer, who like other sources requested anonymity for safety reasons, told RFA that authorities know there are still many more abused and trapped workers in the SEZ, but they don’t know the number.

“[M]any Lao and foreign workers have been abused [while] having labor disputes with Chinese employers,” he said. “For example, they couldn’t do the jobs, and the employers wouldn’t give them any food and water, or would detain them or sell them to massage parlors and brothels.”

“We don’t know the number because the SEZ is a Chinese territory,” the police officer said. “We can go in there only when we’re allowed to.”

A member of Bokeo’s anti-human trafficking unit said it also was difficult to rescue trapped workers because they have signed employment contracts.

“We can’t help many workers such as those who have labor contracts with their employers for six months or one year,” he said. “They have to abide by the contracts. We can help only those who are abused and didn’t sign the contracts.”

A Lao woman who recently escaped from the SEZ confirmed that human trafficking is still occurring despite the Lao government’s efforts.

“Right now, they [human traffickers] are still recruiting Lao and Thai girls, women and men to work in the SEZ,” she told RFA, adding that recruiters usually are paid 15,000 baht (U.S. $425) for each person they recruit.

“Many workers experience all kinds of hardship and still continue to work in the SEZ because they come from very poor families,” she said. “They have no other choice but to work there.”

Another former SEZ worker said when middlemen tried to sell him women, he declined because he pitied them.

“In the SEZ, a woman can be sold for sex for 2,000 yuan (U.S. $300) per night or 400 yuan (U.S. $60) for one time.”

Translated by Max Avary for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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