Protecting girls from becoming modern-day slaves

As the International Day Against Child Labour approaches, organisations working in Laos are highlighting modern-day child slavery and the many forms it takes. The worst involves children who can be found working in inhumane conditions. For Lao children, this is a real risk as many vulnerable children cross into neighbouring countries to find work in order to help their family.

Take the case of Chanhsy* and Putsavanh* – two girls from poor families in rural Laos. They are two of the hundreds of girls who have been sold to work as maids in the homes of the rich in neighbouring countries.

“I was 13 when a broker came to our village looking for girls to work in Thailand,” Chanhsy says. “It seemed like a way to help my family.”

The second girl, Putsavanh, left home at 14 to go to Thailand in search of work.

“Our family didn’t have much money and I had to quit school. When a broker came to our village and promised good jobs in Bangkok with good money, I decided to go,” Putsavanh says. 

When they arrived in Thailand, the girls were locked inside homes.

Chanhsy was never paid in the three years she worked as a domestic labourer.

“I worked from morning to midnight, cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, feeding the dogs. I couldn’t leave, they installed cameras to watch me. I was trapped inside the house,” Chanhsy says.

Putsavanh too worked endlessly without pay.

“When they were not happy with my work, they beat me. One day they hit me so hard on the ears that I could not hear anything for a long time,” Putsavanh says.

Across the country, stories like Chanhsy’s and Putsavanh’s are repeated. Every year, about 60,000 people leave Laos to work in other countries, the International Office of Migration (IOM) reports. Among this number are hundreds of children under the age of 18 who decide to leave home in an attempt to have a better life or help their family.

“Unfortunately, often we see many cases where girls come back to Laos after they were treated very badly and were never paid,” says Phouthaluck Phontsaona, an anti-trafficking expert who works at World Vision Laos.

On 12 June, the International Day Against Child Labour, the situation of girls who are sold to be maids is being highlighted.

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) states that 11.3 million girls under the age of 18 are currently working as domestic labourers across the world, with the largest number of girls working in Asia. In Thailand, there are more than 83,000 registered migrant domestic workers, many who are from Laos. The ILO further estimates that only 10 per cent of domestic workers are registered, while the large majority of workers are undocumented.

Girls like Chanhsy and Putsavanh are defined as child labourers – engaged in work that is harmful for their development and that keeps them from getting an education.

“Child labour is defined as any work that anyone under the age of 18 performs that robs them of their dignity, is harmful to their mental and physical development and interferes with their schooling,” Phouthaluck says.

Research studies from around the world show that poverty, lack of education and inequality in income are the primary reasons children are forced to work in exploitative cond

“Prevention is key to ensure children aren’t exploited in unlawful working conditions,” Phouthalck says.

World Vision, the government of Laos and other international organisations are currently conducting extensive training in communities to make them aware of the risks of children leaving their families to work in other countries.

“We realise that choosing where you want to work is an individual choice but it should be an informed option,” Phouthaluck says. “Ultimately, we hope that girls aren’t faced with the decision of having to leaving home to look for work. We believe when a family is able to step beyond the grip of economic instability, the risk of children being involved in harmful labour practices greatly diminishes.”

World Vision is working with the Lao PDR government to help communities improve their educational opportunities and strengthen livelihoods – through agriculture and income generation projects. World Vision’s anti-trafficking project works in six countries along the Mekong to help prevent trafficking by addressing policy, prevention and protection.

The organisation also works with government authorities to offer help to girls who have been able to escape.

Chanhsy left after she climbed over the wall while her employers slept.  She received help from other Lao nationals who were living in Thailand and eventually worked with the Thai police to be repatriated to Lao PDR.

Putsavanh escaped after her employers’ dogs bit her. She was sent back into Laos after she received assistance from a government-run transit centre for victims of trafficking. She was returned to her village with assistance from the Lao Government’s Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. 

Both Chanhsy and Putsavanh have received reintegration support from World Vision and the Lao government since they have returned home. World Vision has helped the women develop technical skills that allow them to work in their village. Both are now employed Chanhsy as a market gardener and Putsavanh as a tailor.

“We need to work at a national, regional and international level to end child labour,” says World Vision Laos’ National Director Amelia Merrick. “We hope to see a world one day where children are not forced to work to support their families, where people can earn enough in their home village and where education is available to all children.”

For more information on trafficking, please pick up a copy of 10 things you need to know about labour trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, available in Lao and English, at World Vision Laos’ office in Vientiane, telephone: 021-414-619.

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* names changed to protect identity