The trafficking of Lao nationals to neighboring Thailand as undocumented laborers continues to be a growing problem with brokers arranging for thousands to be taken across the border for job opportunities that too often end up in situations where Laotians are abused by their employers.
The phenomenon prompted the U.S. State Department this year to downgrade Laos to Tier 3 status on its annual Trafficking in Persons report, which ranks 188 countries as Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List, or Tier 3, based on whether they meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking set by U.S. law.
The Lao government has not fully met the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and has not showed overall greater efforts to do so. Authorities continued to prosecute and sentence a modest number of traffickers, provide job assistance to some returned victims, and conduct awareness-raising activities in Lao communities at high risk of forced labor for large-scale infrastructure projects, the report acknowledged.
Phinh (not her real name), a 21-year-old Laotian who was abused by a Thai employer in Damnoen Saduak district of western Thailand's Ratchaburi province for five years, is one of the fortunate ones. She was rescued by Thai police and returned home to Bachiangchaleunsouk in southwestern Lao's Champassak province in October, and her employer was arrested.
Phinh was able to return to her family with assistance from the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), whose mission is to increase migrant workers' access to their fundamental rights in Thailand and facilitate their integration into Thai society, and the secretariat of anti-human trafficking under Lao's National Steering Committee on Anti-Human Trafficking.
I'm happy to be home, happy to see my father and mother, Phinh told RFA's Lao Service after she returned to her village. I will work on our cassava family plantation. I will help my family.
Her mother told RFA that she and Phinh's father though about the young woman a lot while she was gone, and that they would all have a welcome home meal of chicken and pork.
We are so happy, she said.
Phinh is typical of the thousands of young and not-so-young Laotians trafficked each year to neighboring Thailand, according to LPN, where some are forced to work under slave-like conditions and are subjected to physical or sexual abuse.
Like many young women who are trafficked, Phinh was physically abused by her Thai employer while she was in the country for more than five years.
Phinh was the fourth of six children in Kuangsi village, situated along kilometer No. 6 of Bachiangchaleunsouk district.
Though her parents were poor, they wanted all of their children to have good futures, so they sold their water buffalos to pay for them to go to school.
Phinh is the only child of theirs who failed to finish even the first year of primary school because she did not like studying, so she had stopped going to school and starting helping her parents to plant rice.
In 2013 when I was 16 years old, there was a Lao middleman from my own village who came to urge me and my friends to go with him to work in a factory in Thailand, she said.
Back then I did not think much and did not listen to my parents when they warned me not to go because in my heart only wanted to go to Thailand, she said. I wanted to experience life in Thailand, which I only had seen on TV.
Source country for trafficking
Laos serves as a source country for human trafficking, with Lao nationals exploited for labor and sexual services primarily in Thailand. Though some opportunities for regular labor migration exist, a significant proportion of worker movement from Laos to Thailand is irregular and illegal, experts and NGOs say.
This creates conditions in which Lao nationals seeking better jobs elsewhere in Southeast Asia are susceptible to exploitation in the commercial sex trade, garment factories, domestic services, agricultural and construction industries, and the fishing and seafood sectors, according to the United Nations Action for Cooperation Against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT).
Phinh and four of her friends around the same age from Kuangsi village each asked their parents for 1,000 Thai baht (U.S. $30) and went to see the middleman with a family member to discuss going to Thailand for work.
Foreign traffickers are increasingly collaborating with local Lao middlemen, also known as brokers, to facilitate trafficking, according to the latest Trafficking in Persons report.
But Phinh sensed that something was wrong when the broker drove a van to stop at the road which leads to her house to pick her and her friends up. He also stopped at other villages to pick up Laotians who were going to Thailand for work.
It must have been around 20 people altogether, including male teenagers and some around 40 years old, she said.
The van stopped at a Lao-Thai border checkpoint where each passenger had to pay 1,000 baht to the broker so he could pass the money on to border guards as a passage fee.
The van then crossed into Thailand and entered Ubon Ratchathani province in northeastern Thailand's Isan region on the border with Laos and Cambodia.
None of us saw anything in Thailand, Phinh said. We just saw our own Lao broker standing there at the border gate on Thai soil waiting for us and leading us to a parked car where there were two Thai men from northeastern Thailand waiting.
The broker handed Phinh and all other Laotians to the men, who confiscated the family books and border passes, then returned to the Lao side of the border, she said, referring to identification documents issued to Lao citizens by the government that list a person's immediate family members.
The two Thais drove the 20 Laotians to an unknown destination. After a long time had passed, they asked the pair where they were heading to.
One man told them they were being taken to a factory were they would be given work. He also told them not to worry and to try to get some sleep because it would take a long time to reach their destination.
The next morning, the van stopped in front of a two-story house in an unknown part of Thailand.
The two Thais led Phinh and the others into the house where two other men and a woman were waiting for them.
The three Thai individuals gave money to the two men, but I do not know how much, Phinh said. But I know it was a lot. Then the two Thais left and drove away.
The three people inside the house made some phone calls, and soon after another person arrived and selected Phinh as a worker, she said.
Others came to look at the Laotians, so Phinh assumed it was because of the previous phones calls.
That was how Phinh came to work as a housemaid for Jei Pong. She does not know what happened to her four friends or the rest of the Laotians with whom she was trafficked.
Jei Pong told Phinh that she would pay her 7,000 baht (U.S. $211) per month, but during the first few months her salary would be only 1,000 or 2,000 baht because Jei Pong had to pay to the people in the safe house 5,000 baht (U.S. $151) before Phinh could be taken away.
At first Jei Pong treated me well, and sent 5,000 baht to my mother at home in Laos, Phinh said. When I called to check, my mother said she had really received the money.
During the second month, Jei Pong said she was going to send 10,000 baht (U.S. $302) to my mother.
I was so happy when I heard that, Phinh said.
But this time, she could not call home to check with her mother to see if she had received the money because Phinh's cell phone was taken away from her.
After six months on the job, Jei Pong began scolding her verbally and physically abused her if she worked more slowly than her employer thought she would be working.
Jei Pong hit Phinh frequently, in one instance delivering three severe blows, she said. The first time, she needed stitches after the woman hit her in the head with a flower pot for forgetting to change the flowers in a shrine outside the house.
The second time, Jei Pong smacked a large wooden rod on Phinh's back for ironing clothes too slowly.
The third time, Phinh also needed stiches after Jei Pong hit her on the ear with a bottle of mosquito spray because she said the young woman was not working fast enough.
During the five years I worked in Jei Pong's house, I got hit all the time with clothes hangers or with anything that was near Jei Pong, Phinh said. I had to endure it because I did not know what else to do. I did not have any documents with me, so I did not dare to report it to the police.
The final blow came on Sept, 27, 2018, when Jei Pong threw boiling water on Phinh's body, which eventually left a scar on her right arm and body that is still visible. Her offense: forgetting to cover the pot of boiling water.
A neighbor heard Phinh scream out in agony and called the police. After officers arrived and inspected the house, they took Phinh to the town's police station and kept her in a holding center for illegal immigrants while they questioned Jei Pong.
Phinh later learned that Jei Pong's neighbors said the woman has a mental health problem, and that's why she hit Phinh all the time and threatened to kill her for working too slowly or not hard enough.
Jei Pong said to me every year that she would let me go home during the Lao New Year [in April], but when the New Year came, she didn't give me money and didn't let me go home, Phinh told RFA.
Thai police have charged Jei Pong with physical abuse and hiring an illegal alien without a work permit and said they are investigating other possible charges against her.
So far, police have asked Jei Pong to pay 135,000 baht (U.S. $4,070) in compensation and have given the money to Phinh.
'We need justice for her'
She has faced a lot of hardship from her employer, and the arrest of the abusive employer was made, said Colonel Southiphong Phongpraphaamphay, police commander of Damnoen Saduak district, calling it a human trafficking case.
We need justice for her and for anybody no matter what their nationality or country is, because she is a human being like us, he told RFA. And it's time for her to have justice and go back to Laos to her father and mother.
Xoukiet Panyanouvong from the Lao office of UN-ACT, said the case is one of both physical abuse and human trafficking.
She is now 21 years old, but when she entered Thailand to work, she was only 16, she said. That means that she was tricked when she was still a child.
The case will be discussed at an upcoming meeting among representatives from LPN, Lao's anti-human trafficking secretariat, and the Thai government on Nov. 28 in Bangkok, she said.
Xoukiet said police should have sent Phinh to a care center where she could have been mentally and physically evaluated before returning home instead of putting her in a police illegal immigrant center.
Phinh is a human trafficking victim, she said.
Samark Thupthany, LPN's chief rights protection director, said his organization hopes that Laotians who wish to work in Thailand learn a lesson from Phinh's case.
If they want to work in Thailand they should come here legally, and Lao officials should investigate Lao brokers who lure Laotians to work in Thailand to prevent such a case from happening again, he told RFA.
We have to help each other watch out [for traffickers], especially for children or girls who come to work in Thailand, he said. We must make sure they all have proper official documents in order to prevent any violence or any kind of abuse happening to them in both Laos and Thailand.
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