More than a dozen Lao women have been rescued by police from the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in northwestern Laos where they were being held against their will and, in some cases, forced to work as prostitutes.
Local authorities rescued six women on Feb. 5 and 6 after the women had filed complaints with police. Eight others ran away on Jan. 20, escaping through a fence. The women had gone to SEZ after being promised jobs as “chat girls” who recruit investors online or as barmaids.
“We rescued three women yesterday, and the day before we rescued another three women,” said a police officer from Bokeo province, where the SEZ is located, on Monday. “These six women formally asked us for help; therefore, we could go into the SEZ and help them get out. Most of them worked as chat girls or sex service providers.”
The confinement of female Lao workers in the SEZ is nothing new. The police officer from the province said his department rescued 40-50 women — most from the country’s capital Vientiane — from the Golden Triangle SEZ in 2021.
Hundreds of others in the SEZ in Bokeo province are still trapped by their employers, wanting and waiting to get out, authorities and the Lao women who escaped said.
But Lao authorities cannot easily enter the Chinese-run zone, which operates largely beyond the reach of the Lao government.
“It’s difficult to rescue women from the SEZ because the zone practically belongs to the Chinese,” said a Bokeo province official. “Outsiders have no right to be there. The women and their parents or relatives must work with us so we can in then rescue them.”
Some of the women did just that, contacting local police to ask for help.
One of two Lao women from Vientiane who escaped told RFA that she and her colleague went to the SEZ in mid-December 2021 to work as barmaids but ended up being forced to work as prostitutes.
She told RFA on Monday that they were able to contact authorities from a Bokeo province special task force who suggested that they plan an escape using the shortest route possible.
One night when no one was around, the pair went to the ground floor of the building they were confined to and ran toward a fence where two members of the taskforce shined flashlights on them. The authorities immediately called the police, who questioned the women and took them to the police station.
“If we had been caught while escaping, we would be dead,” said the woman who declined to give her name for safety reasons.
The two women told police that they did not receive any money while in SEZ.
“Later the police had us sign a copy of our statement, and then put us on a train back to the capital Vientiane,” the woman said.
Six other women who worked as barmaids in a different building also fled on the same night and were similarly rescued by the taskforce, she said.
The woman from Vientiane who spoke with RFA said the women told her that they had been confined to a house since November 2021, though recruiters had promised them jobs at the SEZ with free food and accommodations.
After they arrived, they discovered that they had been lied to. Instead of free food and a place to stay, they were told they each owed 20,000 yuan (U.S. $3,050) to their Chinese employer, the woman said.
Happy to escape ‘living hell’
Many of the women lured to the SEZ work as “chat girls,” texting casino customers over web applications like Line, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. They often have to meet ambitious sales quotas that are difficult if not impossible to meet, piling up “debts” for food and housing all the while.
A woman from Luang Namtha province who worked as a chat girl in SEZ told RFA that she had sent her location to the authorities, who were able to rescue her.
“I’m so happy I was able to escape that living hell,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
She said her job required her to lie to foreign male customers, promising healthy rates of return if they invested in the company. Whenever she did something wrong, her employer would fine her 200-2,000 yuan, she said.
Though the woman signed a six-month contract, her employer fired her after a month and said she owed 28,000-yuan for various expenses, which the woman could not pay. Now, she is helping to run a family store in Luang Namtha province, she said.
Three women interviewed by RFA on Jan. 27 who were rescued said they had been forced into prostitution when they could not repay their debts.
“At first, they were told that they would get three free meals a day and free accommodations. In reality, things were not like that. What we eat or where we live will cost us,” a woman from Khammouane province said.
Another of the women, who recently returned to her family in Oudomxay province, said she was “lucky” because she had taken photos of her national ID card and proof of COVID-19 vaccinations. She later sent them to the special task force when she asked authorities for help.
“I also told them the details of where I was located in what building and for which company I was working in the SEZ,” she said.
A woman from Luang Prabang province said she had done the same.
The women said they now live in constant fear that the middlemen who secured their jobs — in many cases the wives of the Chinese business owners — will come after them over the debts.
The woman from Khammouane said she had already received calls from the middleman who told her, “You’ve escaped the SEZ, but you can’t escape your debt.”