Three Thai citizens who were tricked into working for a corrupt business in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone returned home to Thailand on Thursday, the latest repatriation of Thai citizens trapped in the zone, RFA has learned.
The three women were promised good jobs, but when they arrived were put to work on fake social media accounts and told to pitch shares of companies within the zone to tourists. RFA reported this week that another group of 15 Thai citizens that had been duped the same way had all returned home, but they warned other Thais were still there.
“I’m glad to be back, and I’ll never return. To other Thais, I’d like to tell them not to fall prey to the ad on Facebook because the SEZ is full of lies. Nothing is real,” one of the three rescued women told local media.
“About the money, they only gave me 1,000 yuan [U.S. $157]. That’s it. They wouldn’t allow us to go outside at all and we were trapped in one building. I’ll never go back,” she said.
The three women were promised 30,000 baht per month ($900). But because they could not meet what they said were unreasonably high sales quotas, the company they were working for threatened to sell them to another business.
A labor official inside the SEZ said his office had no knowledge of the Thai women.
“We have no record of them. They were here in the SEZ, but how did they get here? They had no documents. They must have sneaked in, but through which channel? We don’t know,” the official said.
The Thai Embassy in Laos said it receives requests for help from Thais all over Laos, not just only in the SEZ.
“When they contact us, we coordinate with the Lao authorities to resolve their case,” the embassy said.
The embassy recently issued a warning to Thai citizens in Laos to be wary of job opportunities in SEZ.
“The job seems to be illegal defrauding of other people, and working for criminal gangs, and prostitution. If the workers refuse to do the job, they’ll be fined, even physically abused, deprived of freedom, sold to another employer and have their documents confiscated,” the warning said.
It encouraged Thais in Laos to “be cautious and do not to trust or fall prey to the scamming scheme that is luring people to work in the SEZ.”
A greater number of Lao women have been scammed in a similar way: promised good jobs only to find nightmarish conditions once in SEZ. But Lao government has not done as much to protect its citizens as Bangkok has, sources said.
The Lao victims of the employment bait-and-switch scheme have no one to go to for help, a Lao resident of the capital Vientiane, told RFA’s Lao Service.
“I know some of the Lao women in the SEZ. They say they’ve requested help from the Lao authorities, but they don’t receive any help,” she said on condition of anonymity. “The authorities just say these women don’t have enough information or documentation. So Lao women are on their own. If they can escape, good for them.”
The employment scam has prompted discussions on social media platforms like Facebook about what some commentators see as relative inaction by the Lao government to the problem.
“They never warn us of anything. The ad is still online recruiting more workers,” one Facebook user said. “Look at the Thai authorities. They warn their people. In Laos, there is no news about the Golden Triangle SEZ at all, and no warning published by Lao media.”
The Golden Triangle SEZ is run by Zhao Wei, chairman of the Dok Ngiew Kham Group, with Zhao’s firm holding 80 percent interest and the Lao government holding 20 percent.
Located where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, the Golden Triangle area got its name five decades ago for its central role in heroin production and trafficking.
In 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department declared Zhao Wei’s business network, centered on Kings Romans Casino, a “transnational criminal organization” and sanctioned Zhao and three other individuals and companies across Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong.
Zhao’s business “exploits this region by engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery and wildlife trafficking, much of which is facilitated through the Kings Romans Casino located within the [Golden Triangle] SEZ,” a Treasury statement said.
The State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report said Laos had increased its overall efforts to combat trafficking, but fell short in victim identification and screening procedures, and failed to adequately investigate suspected perpetrators of sex trafficking.
Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.