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Lao authorities rescue women from Chinese-run economic zone

Local women tricked into prostitution by unscrupulous brokers and employers with promises of high wages as ‘chat girls’

Lao authorities rescue women from Chinese-run economic zone

This picture taken on September 20, 2019 shows fisherman Kome Wilai watching a cement barge pass his boat on the Mekong River between Thailand's Chiang Rai province and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos in the background. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/AFP)

Published: February 11, 2022 07:45 AM GMT

Updated: February 11, 2022 08:04 AM GMT

Authorities in Laos rescued several disadvantaged local women who had been held against their will in a special Chinese-run economic zone in the northwestern part of the country, local sources said.

Six women were freed from the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, which is operated by entrepreneurs from China, after more than a dozen women had called for help from police saying they had been forced to stay against their will and work in jobs that included prostitution.

Another eight women had managed to escape on their own through a fence that surrounds the special zone.

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The women said they had been recruited to work as “chat girls” and barmaids only to find themselves effectively enslaved and forced to engage in various forms of sex work by their Chinese employers.

Chat girls are required to chat with potential customers on social media apps to sell various items of merchandise or engage them in investment options. The job often involves various scams aimed at bilking unwitting victims out of money.

“At first, they were told that they would get three free meals a day and free accommodation. In reality, things were not like that. What we eat or where we live will cost us,” a rescued woman said.

Reportedly, hundreds of other local men and women are still trapped by their employers inside the special economic zone, which has been set up by the communist government in cooperation with Chinese businesses to boost the economy.

Because of the Chinese-run zone’s special status Lao authorities cannot enter without good cause.

“It’s difficult to rescue women from the [Special Economic Zone] because the zone practically belongs to the Chinese,” said an official in the province of Bokeo.

“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,” the officials added.

In 2012 some 50 women were rescued by Lao police from the economic zone after filing similar complaints alleging exploitative conditions imposed on them by their employers.

One woman from the capital, Vientiane, who escaped last week together with another woman with some help from a police taskforce told Radio Free Asia’s Lao Service they they had been kept in a building which they were not allowed to leave and were forced to work as prostitutes with no payment.  

One night last week the two women sneaked down to the ground floor of the building and ran towards a perimeter fence where they were rescued by members of the taskforce.

“If we had been caught while escaping, we would be dead,” the woman said. 

Six other women, who had been kept in another building, managed to escape the same night under similar circumstances.

“I’m so happy I was able to escape that living hell,” one woman was quoted as saying.

Many women in Laos remain vulnerable to various forms of exploitation because of their economic situation.

Wages in the communist nation tend to be low for most available jobs, and so young men and women are often lured under false pretenses into exploitative forms of employment, including sex work, by unscrupulous brokers and employers who promise them higher wages.

Women from disadvantaged economic backgrounds with low levels of educational attainment are especially vulnerable, experts say.   


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