Authorities in northern Laos are calling on businesses in the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to suspend hiring of Laotians to work as “chat girls” in an effort to curb abuses, including human trafficking.
Middlemen working on behalf of the Kings Roman Casino in the SEZ in Bokeo province have actively recruited young Loatian 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 physically abused or sold off to work in the zone’s sex industry, RFA reported in December 2021.
Bokeo province 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.
The province’s Bokeo Committee for Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone Management issued the notice on July 19 for casino owner Dok Ngiew Kham Group, the zone’s board of directors, and other companies and businesses in the SEZ.
“We’re requesting cooperation from all companies, including the Dok Ngiew Kham Group, in the SEZ in inspecting the companies that use Lao workers as online chatters,” a provincial official who serves on the committee told RFA on Monday.
“We’d like also to reeducate both Lao workers and the employers not to use violence,” he said, citing recent cases of Lao workers who were physically abused by their employers because they couldn’t meet the harsh requirements of their jobs.
“The discipline used is over the line,” said the official, who declined to be named so he could speak freely. “The employers should cut off their salaries instead of beating them.”
Lao authorities will inspect the companies that use workers as online chatters and educate Lao workers and employers about fair labor practices, he said.
An official of the Planning and Investment Department of Bokeo province, who requested anonymity for the same reason, said the latest measure would help stamp out the abuse of workers in the SEZ.
“The action is good!” he said “The authorities of the SEZ management committee are going to stop the companies from importing workers, and they will inspect the labor practice.”
Long hours, night shifts
A Lao worker in the SEZ told RFA on Monday that a friend who has worked as an online chat girl for seven months initially signed a labor contract for six months.
“During that time, she wasn’t able to do the job properly; so, she now wants to get out and do something else with another company,” he said. “But she can’t, [and] her employer has asked her to pay back the money the company paid to a middleman to get her here.”
The chat girl told her friend that her employer increased her work time to 14 hours a day and made her work night shifts.
“I wonder why the provincial labor department would never inspect this kind of labor practice,” said the friend, who declined to be named for safety reasons.
Another SEZ worker told RFA that she also witnessed abuse.
“Recently, I’ve seen more and more Lao workers being disciplined for not performing well on the job, like running around the building,” she said. “If any workers want to quit their company and go to another, they’ll have to pay back debt. Many women sell themselves to pay off the debt and then quit.”
But a 20-year-old online chat girl said some workers appreciate the opportunity to make money in the SEZ.
“Some of my friends who work for my company just came back from visiting their parents, and they paid bribes to officials and security guards to get back to work in the SEZ,” she said.
RFA reported on July 14 that a Lao worker from Luang Namtha province had been hospitalized for several days after being beaten up by a security guard of the Golden Triangle SEZ for not being able to do his job as an online chatterer. He said the security guard hit him several times with a metal baton.
On Feb. 22, 2022, the Bokeo Committee also requested the companies and workers in the SEZ to sign labor contracts detailing all duties and responsibilities of the workers and employers as a protective measure.
Lao authorities have complained that they cannot easily enter the zone, which operates largely beyond the reach of Lao laws, creating friction with locals. 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.
As of May, police had rescued nearly 500 trapped SEZ workers during the previous 12 months, including about 200 women who were victims of human trafficking, RFA reported earlier.
Translated by Max Avary for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.