Trio Lao women held by Chinese SEZ plead for help

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The trio signed on to be saleswomen but after weeks of not working, their debts are piling up.

Three Lao women say they are being held against their will in the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in northwestern Laos, where they came to find work as “chat girls” in a call center for Kings Romans Casino.

When they arrived in mid-December at the SEZ, the women were first quarantined for about 14 days to ensure they did not have COVID-19, they said. The quarantine was extended to almost a month, even though none of them tested positive.

Now they say they are being confined against their will.

The women said that they wan to return to their home provinces, but each owes 10,000 yuan ($1,600) to their employers plus expenses for food and accommodations. Their employers will not let them leave the premises until they repay their debts, they said.

Chat girls talk to casino customers by texting them over web applications like Line, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and have to meet a sales quota determined by their employer. But there are hundreds of Lao women doing the same job, which makes it hard for any one of them to meet the targets they are given.

Faced with debts they can’t pay many are at risk of being forced into prostitution.

The first woman, a 32-year-old from Vientiane, said that said she and the others will be confined to the Kings Romans Casino until another employer buys them. One inquired but thought the price was too high.

“We have no choice but to be confined here and waiting to be called to work,” said the woman, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

The woman said the trio wants to be rescued, but Lao authorities cannot easily enter the Chinese-run SEZ, which operates largely beyond the reach of the Lao government.

Many of the workers are pressured to work as prostitutes to pay off their debts. Others get stuck waiting for months confined to small living quarters, including large truck containers.

Nevertheless, poor Lao women flock to the zone in hopes of a making a good living due to a dearth of jobs in other provinces.

A middleman, who arranges for women to move to the SEZ for jobs, said workers who fail to meet their customer quotas typically receive 3,000 yuan (U.S. $475) a month, while those who succeed receive 5,000 yuan (U.S. $790) a month plus a 15% commission.

The woman said she applied to an online job ad for positions that paid well and included free accommodations, food and medicine.



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