Myanmar migrant workers stranded at a special economic zone (SEZ) in northern Laos catering to Chinese gamblers staged a rare protest last week in a bid to return home amid an outbreak of the coronavirus, 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. The SEZ is now guarded by Chinese security guards assigned to prevent workers from leaving amid a lockdown aimed at preventing further spread of the disease.
Hundreds of protesting Myanmar workers on Friday demanded that Lao and SEZ authorities allow them to return home or provide them with food and financial aid enabling them to remain in Laos, workers told RFA’s Lao Service.
“Because of the lockdown, we have not been paid for months. We have been abandoned,” one protesting worker said on Monday. “We have no money of our own to pay rent or buy food, and we’ve received no financial aid.”
“In addition, we have to pay for COVID-19 testing too,” he said.
“It’s calm now,” a Lao worker in the SEZ told RFA, adding that soldiers and police officers had come to the SEZ on Friday to break the protest up. “They protested because many of them lost their jobs in construction and at restaurants in the SEZ because of the lockdown,” he said.
“They want either to go home or to get some help.”
“They protested because they have been jobless and confined in the Golden Triangle SEZ for months and haven’t received any aid,” another Lao worker said. “They protested even though the authorities told them not to,” he added.
Laos has recorded eight deaths from nearly 8,400 coronavirus cases.
‘Business as usual’
Also speaking to RFA, the owner of a small shop outside the SEZ noted that another outbreak of COVID-19 had recently hit the SEZ, prompting the latest lockdown.
“Many Burmese workers have families including young children, and they can’t afford to live here without working. So they want to go home to Myanmar,” he said.
Reached for comment, a member of the Golden Triangle SEZ management team said that the Myanmar workers’ protest had ended, and that “it’s business as usual again.”
“The protest was initiated by some kind of misunderstanding about COVID-19 testing,” he said. “The SEZ management team negotiated with the protesters for two hours, and then the protesters agreed to go back to their dormitory and the management agreed to take care of the workers.”
Some go home
After Friday’s protest, Lao authorities informed Myanmar border officials that some of the Myanmar workers were planning to go home, “and on Monday at least half of the nearly 2,000 Burmese workers in the SEZ have been allowed to return,” the management team member said.
“As for the rest of the Burmese workers, their employers in the SEZ have promised to look after them during the current lockdown from Aug. 4 to Aug. 18,” he said.
Companies and employers in the SEZ have a duty to look after the welfare of their workers, agreed an official in the Bokeo provincial administration with responsibility for overseeing the Golden Triangle SEZ.
“And their workers can always complain to our authorities if their employers don’t keep their promises,” he said.
Lao workers in the SEZ who want to return home to their own provinces should register with the appropriate authorities, the management team member said, adding that around 150 Lao workers have already done so.
“They can go home after the lockdown ends in about two weeks. But during these first two weeks during the lockdown, no one can get out,” he said.
In May last year, approximately 6,000 Lao and foreign workers were present in the SEZ, with about half that number left in the SEZ today, the management team member said. Of that number, around 2,000 came from Myanmar, with the remaining number made up by Lao workers and Chinese.
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