Workers at a special economic zone (SEZ) in northern Laos that caters to Chinese gamblers are desperate to return to their homes amid an outbreak of the coronavirus that triggered a lockdown earlier this week, saying they haven’t been paid in months and can no longer afford food or rent.
Up to 5,000 workers of different nationalities are employed at the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo province, which lies along Laos’ shared borders with Thailand and Myanmar. Bokeo is a hotspot for coronavirus transmission and the SEZ’s main tourist draw—the Kings Romans Casino—has seen business plummet during the pandemic.
Lao migrant workers at the SEZ told RFA’s Lao Service that most of them have been out of a job for months because of the downturn and have no money to pay for necessities, but restrictions on movement aimed at preventing the spread of the virus mean they cannot leave the area.
“Because of the lockdown, only a few of us are working, while most of us are laid off and want to get out [of the SEZ],” one worker said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“It’s difficult to live here, as we have had no income … for more than four months. We’ve requested help from the [provincial government] but received no response.”
The worker said that he and around 50 of his fellow nationals had registered requests with the SEZ office to return to their families but had yet to hear back.
Another worker, who also declined to be named, said all he can do is wait for a green light to leave.
“We don’t have money to pay for rent and all the food is getting more expensive,” he said. “Everybody wants to get out.”
A third worker told RFA that even those with money are finding it difficult to buy goods during the lockdown because most of the stores and markets are closed.
“We just stay in our rooms all the time; we can’t go out,” he said.
“The SEZ is guarded by Chinese security guards. If we’re caught going out, we have to pay 300 yuan (U.S. $46) to get tested for COVID-19.”
Designated ‘red zone’
Last month, Thailand’s Manager Online news website reported that most of Bokeo province’s transmissions have occurred within the SEZ, with the rest occurring in nearby Tonpheung district.
The high infection rate and the recent discovery that two Lao workers who returned home from the SEZ had tested positive for COVID-19 prompted authorities this week to add the area to a list of “red zones” in the country that are subject to even tighter restrictions.
Thipphakone Chanthavongsa, the Vice-Minister of the Lao Prime Minister’s Office, announced Tuesday that the lockdown for red zones had been extended to at least Aug. 18, as the virus continues to spread within Laos, as well as in Thailand and Myanmar.
An official from the Bokeo provincial government confirmed that no one will be leaving the SEZ any time soon.
“The workers can’t get out right now; they have to wait until the lockdown is over,” they said.
“As for money or food, the government and the companies they work for are responsible for that; they must take care of their workers,” they added, without providing details about what that relief would look like, or how it would be enforced.
Reports of the challenges facing workers at the Golden Triangle SEZ came as the number of COVID-19 infections continued to mount in Laos.
Dr. Rattanaxay Phetsouvanh, director general of the Communicable Disease Control Department, told a press conference that of nearly 2,700 people tested on Wednesday, more than one in 10 had been confirmed positive.
As of Wednesday, Laos had 7,015 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths attributed to the disease. Nearly 4,800 infections and four deaths occurred in the past month.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.