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 seek work as “cat girls” in a call center for Kings Romans Casino.

When they arrived in mid-December in 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, although none of them tested positive.

Now they say they are confined against their will.

The women have said they want to return to their home province, but each owes their employer 10,000 yuan ($1,600) plus food and accommodation costs. Their employers won’t let them leave until they pay off their debts, they said.

Chat girls speak to casino customers by texting them through web applications such as Line, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and must meet a sales quota determined by their employer. But there are hundreds of Lao women doing the same job, which makes it difficult for any of them to achieve their assigned goals.

Faced with debts they cannot pay, many risk being forced into prostitution.

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

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

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

RFA reported in December that many workers are forced into prostitution to pay off their debts. Others remain stuck waiting for months confined to small living quarters, including large container trucks.

Nevertheless, poor Lao women are flocking to the area hoping to earn a good living due to a shortage of jobs in other provinces.

A middleman, who organizes the movement of women to the SEZ to find jobs, said workers who fail to meet their client quotas usually receive 3,000 yuan (US$475) per month, while those who pass receive 5,000 yuan (790 US dollars) per month plus a 15% commission.

The woman who spoke to RFA said she had applied for a job posting online for positions that paid well and included free accommodation, food and medicine.

“But in practice at Kings Romans Casino everything is the opposite,” she said. “If I get hired, I don’t even know how much I’ll earn.”

“We want to go home”

A second woman, 21, who came to the SEZ from Pakse said she applied for a job in December because her family was struggling financially, with her mother sick and her four younger siblings attending school.

“When I arrived, I saw a woman in the room waiting to be hired, and then another woman joined us later from the capital Vientiane,” she told RFA. “Now, because of the growing debt, we don’t want to work here anymore. We want to get out of the SEZ.

In the meantime, their employer continues to charge them for accommodation, use of a teapot, food, bed linen and medicine, she said.

“Our parents can’t help us either because they have their own expenses, so we don’t want to be trapped here anymore,” the woman said.

The third woman, a 35-year-old also from Vientiane, told RFA that the trio had been informed that they would be tested again for the COVID-19 virus by January 20. If the results are negative, they could be hired to work as gossip girls.

“But we don’t want to work anymore,” she says. “We want to go home because it’s not as planned. We can no longer afford to be quarantined. We can’t wait any longer. All the expenses of daily living continue to push our debt to the ceiling.

“We want to be rescued by the Lao authorities,” the woman said. “We cannot escape because all our passports and personal IDs have been confiscated by the employer.”

Golden Triangle Casino did not respond to efforts by RFA’s Lao Service to seek comment on the chat girl program.

An official from the Department of Labor and Social Welfare in Bokeo province, where the SEZ is located, said many Lao women were trapped there and officials rescued some, although he did not not explain why the Laotian authorities had been allowed to enter the territory controlled by China. area in these cases.

“But the Chinese don’t want them to leave because they owe a lot of money,” the official said. “The employer paid a lot of money to bring them here, including their bus ride from their villages.”

The provincial official suggested that the three women submit a well-documented complaint with evidence to the ministry as to why they want to return home.

“For example, their parents are sick,” the official said. “In that case, they can be allowed to leave.”

Reported by the Lao service of RFA. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.