Lao officials in Bokeo province have issued new rules for the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in an effort to better protect female workers who have been held there against their will and, in some cases, trafficked as sex workers.
But labor officials and former SEZ workers say the measure may not be enough to stop employers from abusive practices, in part because Lao authorities have little power to operate in the SEZ.
The new procedures established by the provincial SEZ Management Office in northwestern Laos require all SEZ employers and workers to sign labor contracts that ensure workers have a safe workplace, insurance benefits and fair wages. They also forbid forced labor and require regular monitoring and reporting of work and living conditions to the management office.
“The workers must be registered and accepted by a company or sent to the SEZ by an employment placement agency,” an official from the Special Economic Zone Management Office of Bokeo province told RFA on Thursday.
“All Lao, Chinese, Burmese and Thai workers must come in through the proper channel,” said the official, who declined to give his name in order to speak candidly. “If they want to work here, they must go by the rules.”
After employers and workers sign labor contracts, authorities in the SEZ will issue a Smart Card to the workers that shows their identity and the name of their employer, the source said. Every worker who has a card will be registered with the province’s management office. The new regulations took effect on Tuesday.
Workers in the SEZ said they remain skeptical that the new regulation will stop employers from holding female workers against their will, demanding exorbitant sums for housing and food, and forcing some workers into prostitution to pay their debts.
Local Lao authorities recently rescued several women who had gone to SEZ after being promised jobs as barmaids or “chat girls” who recruit investors online. But hundreds remain trapped inside the zone by their employers, despite wanting to leave.
Lao authorities cannot easily enter the Chinese-run zone, which operates largely beyond the reach of the Lao government. Rescues have taken place only after the women provided proof of their identity and endangerment to a special provincial task force.
A former SEZ worker whose employer prevented her from leaving said that signing a contract is not an effective solution to the problem, and that once signed, it might not be enforceable.
If Lao authorities do not have more power in the SEZ to monitor worker conditions, inspect work premises, and reinforce labor laws, then abuses like the denial of benefits or, worse, human trafficking, will continue, she said.
“The contract will make no difference,” said the former SEZ worker from the country’s capital, who declined to give her name out of fear for her safety. “I’ve been there, physically detained. I had no freedom at all.
“As we know, in the SEZ, Lao police have no right to do anything at all,” she said.
A better solution
A woman from the country’s capital Vientiane, who used to work as an online chat girl in a call center in the Golden Triangle SEZ and was pushed into prostitution when she could not make her sales quota, said the new labor contract requirement is not a failproof safeguard against abuse.
She noted that women in SEZ often have to fulfill ambitious sales quotas that are difficult if not impossible to meet as they pile up “debts” for food and housing.
“The contract must be fair and must clearly state that the worker will have basic rights, freedom, and social welfare benefits. Everything must be transparent,” she said.
“If you get a good job, it might be worth spending all the money [to pay the recruiter’s fee], but if you get a bad job like in my case, the employer wouldn’t provide food and water,” she said. “You’d have to pay for everything, and the cost of living here is expensive. In a case like this, you’d be heavily indebted [to the employer].”
An official from the Prosecutor’s Office of Bokeo province told RFA on Tuesday that a mandatory labor contract might not be the best solution.
“With so many young women and men being trafficked and recruited to work in the SEZ, our authorities now want to help or rescue them, but they can’t because they have no right to enter the SEZ. Our rules and laws are not applicable in there,” he said.
A better solution would be for the Lao government to give more power to the Lao police and various governmental and outside groups to monitor the zone and crackdown on human trafficking and forced labor there, said the official who declined to give his name.
“Up to now, no government agency has monitored and checked on labor abuse in the SEZ,” he said. “The SEZ has become an unforbidden zone plagued with human trafficking, forced labor and other serious crimes.”
Earlier in February, RFA reported that at least 19 Lao women had been rescued by police from the SEZ, eight of whom had escaped through a fence before being helped by police. The rest of the women had filed complaints with Lao authorities and formally requested their help, so that police could enter the SEZ and free them.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.