Unlocking her Potential: A Second Chance for Phonevieng

Locks. Phonevieng’s salon is dedicated to making locks shine. 

She’s a 24-year-old hairdresser with a thriving up-start in a small village in central Laos.Her reputation for offering the finest shampoo and wash, the most contemporary cuts and a delicate head massage is spreading throughout the countryside. 

Everyday, the bottom floor of her parents’ house - where she runs her shop - is filled with young women – school girls, women who are thinking of getting married, women who spend their days in the fields. People even come from other villages just to sit in Phonevieng’s chair and get beautified. 

“In our village, there are few other salons and no one is as modern with their hair cuts as Phonevieng,” a neighbour comments as she sits in the salon to catch up on the local gossip. “She started exactly the right business for us.”

For Phonevieng, the road to success was hard fought. 

In childhood, Phonevieng was locked into the clutches of poverty. 

Her parents were rice farmers and earned only a little to feed Phonevieng and her brother and provide for their education. There was no money to buy furniture, and so everyone sat on the floor, ate on the floor and slept on the floor. 

Still, her parents insisted she attend school. She studied hard and became one of the rare 30 per cent of Lao children who finish their secondary education. 

“I dreamed of becoming a nurse after finishing high school,” Phonevieng says.

With tuition costs around 7,850,000 kip (1,000 US dollars) for nursing school, Phonevieng knew it was impossible for her parents to afford nursing school. But Phonevieng was determined. She decided she would get her own job, earn her own money and save. Eventually, she’d have enough to enter nursing school.

When a broker came to her village promising jobs in Thailand with good salaries, Phonevieng thought it was the perfect opportunity. 

At 17, Phonevieng pleaded with her parents. She urged them to let her go to Thailand to earn her own way, to allow her to chase her dreams. It would only be a few months, maybe a year before she’d have enough saved, she thought. Reluctantly, her parents agreed. The broker agreed to cover the transportation costs and the fees for Phonevieng’s passport. She left her home in 2006. 

At the border, instead of driving across the bridge, she boarded a boat, bypassing immigration entirely. She should have known something was wrong then, but Phonevieng had never travelled outside of her country before, never been more than a few hours from home. 

Once in Thailand, she was taken to Bangkok by car. She arrived in the city of 6.35 million and was brought to what seemed to be a depot for new migrants. There, other young women and men from Lao, Myanmar and other southeast Asia countries lingered while employers walked around, selecting the person they thought would be suitable for their venture. 

A Thai woman chose Phonevieng. She told Phonevieng she’d be a maid. She would live in the owner’s house, and do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry and care for the children. 

It never occurred to Phonevieng that she should sign a contract. Or that she should show her documents that she should legally work in Thailand. She was young, this was her first job away from home and that must have been how things were done in Thailand. The woman offered Phonevieng 2,500 Baht (78 US dollars) per month. 

Phonevieng agreed. If she was careful and saved her money wisely, she’d be able to have enough in just over a year to pay for nursing school. Phonevieng worked hard. She woke up before sunrise and worked well into the night. 

When her employer decided to open her own beauty salon, she asked Phonevieng to do more. As an incentive, she promised to pay Phonevieng an extra 1,500 Baht (47 US dollar) per month. 

“Every day I had to wake up at 5 am and work until midnight because I had to works in salon shop as well,” Phonevieng says. 

Phonevieng watched and learned the basics to running a hairdressing business. But Phonevieng also watched her employer gamble on cards. When the end of the month came, there was never any money for Phonevieng to be paid with. 

“After I worked in 4 months I had request my salary,” Phonevieng remembers. “I wanted to send the money back to my mother to save it for my studies.”

But the employer refused.

“She replied that ‘you must work more three months,that’s when I’ll compensate you the money’,” Phonevieng says. 

Phonevieng said the employer also planned to charge her for the fees she had reimbursed the broker with – the transportation money. 

“She told me that if I still continue asking money for my salary they will report me to the police as I am working without employee ID card,” Phoneviengremembers.

“When I heard that answer from employer, I feel very disappointed and I realized I will not reach my dream. I was working for her without getting paid and it was not happening according to the plan I had with my parents. I felt very sad and afraid,” Phonevieng says.

Phonevieng felt trapped

One day, Phonevieng was sent to the market to buy food for the family. 

“At the market I met with a Lao friend and I told them about what was happening to me,” Phonevieng says.

And the Lao friend helped her. “She took me to work with them in another place,” Phoneviengsays. 

One week later, Phonevieng’s previous employer reported Phonevieng to the police. She accused Phonevieng of stealing money from the salon. 

Phonevieng was arrested and put in confinement for two weeks. Then, the police took her back to Tha Pa Sum border crossing and called her parents to come and pick her up. Phonevieng was embarrassed. She returned home with empty pockets. All her dreams disappeared. 

But Phonevieng had a streak of unexpected luck. A village authority learned about Phonevieng’s story and contacted the government’s District of Labour and Social Welfare department.

The department, who partners with World Vision, referred Phonevieng to World Vision Laos’ End Trafficking in Persons support program. The program offered counseling and the opportunity to get an education. 

“I chose to do hairdressing,” Phonevieng says. “I had already learned a little in Thailand and I knew I could not leave my parents for several years as they were getting old and needed someone to take care of them.”

World Vision supported Phonevieng as she attended a six-month beauty course, provided her with start-up equipment to open her own salon and regularly checked in to make sure she was progressing. 

“Even though I gave up my dream of studying (in nursing), now I have my own business at home,” Phonevieng says. 

Each month, Phonevieng makes more than 795,000 kip [about 100 US dollars] and is also able to help her parents and work on the farm in her extra time. 

“I am happy,” Phonevieng says before returning to a customer. She turns on the taps, asks her customer to lie back in her chair and thinks about what she’s unlocked. 

**Name changed to protect identity.