Lao authorities ask casino to stop hiring 'chat girls'

Lao authorities ask casino to stop hiring 'chat girls'

Latest attempt to rein in activities of notorious Kings Romans group linked to trafficking and abuse

The Kings Romans Casino, located across the Mekong River from Chiang Rai, is part of a Chinese-controlled SEZ that has long been linked to allegations of illegal activity. (Photo: Transborder News)
The Kings Romans Casino, located across the Mekong River from Chiang Rai, is part of a Chinese-controlled SEZ that has long been linked to allegations of illegal activity. (Photo: Transborder News)

Authorities in northern Laos have called on businesses in the Chinese-run Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) to stop hiring Lao women to work as “chat girls” in an effort to curb abuses, including human trafficking.

Middlemen working on behalf of the Kings Romans Casino in the SEZ in Bokeo province, just across the Mekong River from Chiang Rai, have actively recruited young Lao women to scam men on social media platforms into buying shares of the company, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week.

Those who fail to meet their sales quotas have been detained against their will by their employers and in some cases physically abused or sold off to work in the zone’s sex industry.

The Bokeo provincial committee in charge of overseeing the SEZ on July 19 sent a notice to casino owner Dok Ngiew Kham Group, the zone’s board of directors and other companies and businesses in the zone.

“We’re requesting cooperation from all companies, including the Dok Ngiew Kham Group, in the SEZ in inspecting the companies that use Lao workers as online chatters,” a provincial official who serves on the committee told RFA.

“We’d like also to reeducate both Lao workers and the employers not to use violence,” he said, citing recent cases of Lao workers who were physically abused by their employers because they couldn’t meet the harsh requirements of their jobs.

“The discipline used is over the line,” said the official, who declined to be named so he could speak freely. “The employers should cut off their salaries instead of beating them.”

Lao authorities plan to inspect the companies that use workers as online chatters and educate Lao workers and employers about fair labour practices, he said.

It is not clear how successful the attempt will be, given the high degree of impunity the SEZ has been seen to enjoy over the years.

As of May this year, police had rescued nearly 500 trapped SEZ workers during the previous 12 months, including about 200 women who were victims of human trafficking, RFA reported earlier.

A gambling and tourism hub catering mainly to Chinese patrons, the SEZ was established in 2007 by Zhao Wei, a Chinese tycoon who has been sanctioned by the US government on allegations that he heads a trafficking network.

But the Lao government “holds Zhao Wei in high regard, while his empire is frequented by high-level Lao officials”, Transborder News founder Passakorn Jumlongrach quoted a researcher as saying in a recent article for the Bangkok Post.

RFA reported earlier this year that Zhao recently toured Saravan province in southern Laos and met with the provincial governor “to discuss the possibility of developing an airport and investing in several agricultural and tourism development projects”.

Zhao’s casino zone has also been accused of involvement in the flourishing Golden Triangle drug trade, and has been connected to the trafficking of endangered wildlife through and within the zone.

The Golden Triangle SEZ is the “worst special economic zone” in the world, a business intelligence firm said earlier this year.

“The Golden Triangle SEZ in Laos is mired in scandal and criminality, but the silence from SEZ authorities on the matter is deafening,” wrote Thibault Serlet, director of research at the Adrianople Group.

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