A video reportedly showing dozens of Vietnamese workers making a dramatic escape from a Chinese-managed casino in Cambodia has prompted new questions about worker abuse as a U.N. human rights official tours the country.
More than 42 Vietnamese workers escaped from the Koh Thom casino complex in Kandal province in Cambodia as seen in the video posted by media outlet VnExpress on Aug. 18. The video shows the workers jumping into a river, chased by guards swinging metal rods.
Cambodian authorities have detained the Chinese manager as it investigates allegations of forced labor and worker abuse.
One person had been recaptured and another was missing in the river, VOD reported on Monday.
A 16-year-old worker from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province was found dead in the Binh Di River, which the workers had jumped into as they fled the casino, the Vietnamese news outlet VnExpress reported on Aug. 20.
Authorities also have arrested two Vietnamese in neighboring An Giang province, across the border from Kandal, for their alleged role in helping Vietnamese illegally enter Cambodia to work.
Kandal provincial prosecutor Ek Sun Reaksmey told VOD that authorities were preparing to send back to Vietnam the one person who was recaptured by the Pacific Real Estate Company, registered under the name Tai Ping Yang Fang Di Chan Wu Ye Guan Li. The workers ran from the company’s building.
The incident comes as more attention is focused on Chinese-run casinos in Southeast Asia and allegations of business scams, prostitution and worker abuse, including holding employees against their will.
Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng ordered immigration officials and police officers to develop a plan to fight human trafficking, which plagues the region.
Sar Kheng addressed the casino workers escape with the press on Aug. 18 after an inter-ministerial agency meeting at the Interior Ministry on fighting human trafficking.
“We went down there to see the situation. It was not entirely true, but partly true,” he said. “Our mission is to rescue the victims and bring the ringleader to justice.”
Sar Kheng said that authorities had arrested a “ringleader or manager” and have some of the workers involved in a case in Kandal’s Chrey Thom village.
“Preliminary information regarding the swimmers to Vietnam [is that] they may have come to work illegally,” he said “When it came to arguing over salary or other issue, they ran away and swam across the canal to Vietnam.”
Kandal Gov. Kong Sophoan wrote on Facebook that he led a delegation to review the dispute between the foreign workers and the company at the Pacific Real Estate Company in Chry Thom village in Koh Thom district.
“I had a meeting with the company and encouraged them to abide by Cambodian laws and the Constitution, respect their business licenses, and absolutely not engage in human and drug trafficking,” he wrote.
“Regarding the Vietnamese people who escaped the workplace and swam to Vietnam, the authorities must continue to investigate according to the law,” he wrote.
Tricked into working there
Two workers told VnExpress that they were tricked into working at the casino and then exploited. One woman said employees had to create fake social media profiles and find people to buy into a phony dating platform or risk beatings.
Kouch Chamroeun, governor of Preah Sihanouk province also known for its Chinese-run casinos and related crime, told Vitit Muntarbhorn, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, on Aug. 19 that there is no human trafficking in Sihanoukville, a popular coastal destination for tourists.
Muntarbhorn, who was appointed to his position in March 2021, is touring the country from Aug. 15 to Aug. 26, his first official visit. The U.N. envoy is meeting with government representatives, human rights defenders and other stakeholders to assess Phnom Penh’s efforts to safeguard human rights.
During the meeting, Kouch Chamroeun claimed that authorities have investigated allegations workers were being illegally detained by businesses in Sihanoukville but found instead employees working normally, with some relaxing and playing on their cell phones, according to a Facebook post by the Preah Sihanouk provincial administration.
The workers said the workers who had complained to the authorities that they were being detained against their will really just wanted to change workplaces, the governor added.
Chhay Kim Khoeun, spokesman for Cambodia’s General Commissariat of National Police, did not respond to a request via the Telegram instant messaging service for an update on the investigation into the case.
Chum Sounry, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, could not be reached for comment regarding a request by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Phnom Penh’s help in investigation into the case.
On Monday, two people in An Giang province were arrested for their roles in the incident and charged with making arrangements for others to leave Vietnam illegally, according to state media.
Nguyen Thi Le, 42, and Le Van Danh, 34, who both live in Long Binh town organized for six of the workers to be employed in the casino with “light workloads and high wages.”
Le told authorities that in May an unidentified person in Cambodia had asked her to join him in bringing Vietnamese workers to Cambodia. She contacted Danh to help by picking up the workers and taking them to the riverbank where she would accompany them to Cambodia.
Le said she received payment of 300,000 dong (U.S. $13) from the Cambodian man, of which she paid Danh 100,000 dong (U.S. $4.30).
Translated by Sok Ry Sum for RFA Khmer and Anna Vu for RFA Vietnamese. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.