Three Nepali women escape their coercive Chinese employers in Laos. They still feel unsafe back homeThe women were previously taken to Laos to work at a call centre. More than two dozen Nepalis are still languishing at the centre, police say.
Lalita’s husband, Rajan, doesn’t have free time to think these days. His brain is occupied by a loan of Rs290,000, which he paid to a Chinese agent two months ago to enable his sick wife to return from a Laos-based call centre.
Rajan, 35, is now learning the Korean language and is into ride-sharing gigs, so that he can pay his four-year-old son’s monthly school fee of Rs5,000 and the rent of his small flat in Bauddha, which sets him back by Rs12,000 a month. But he worries all the time about paying back the borrowed money.
Before leaving for Laos on September 2, Lalita used to work as a part time Chinese translator in Bauddha and her life was fine. That was before one of her friends, Juna, 28, who is also a seasonal Chinese translator in the area, came up with a lucrative job offer of $1,500 a month, equivalent to Rs198,192, at a call centre in the Southeast Asian country. Rajan instantly agreed to send her there for six months to work as a translator.
That was the start of his ordeals.
“Before she left, the Chinese agent also made an agreement paper, and it was genuine,” says Rajan, who the Post met on Sunday in Bauddha. He was on his motorbike, waiting for ride-sharing clients at the Bauddha Gate, the main entrance to the Bauddha Stupa.
Then there was Rojita, 33, a mother of two children aged five and seven. Upon learning of a lucrative job opportunity in the midst of the Covid pandemic, she was also tempted.
Rojita, who now owns a Buddhist puja shop on the Bauddha stupa premises, also managed to convince her husband to let her go.
The three of them—Lalita, Juna and Rojita—then left Nepal to work in Laos. What was more, they would be getting free transport, as well as free meals and lodging.
Upon reaching Laos, however, the three Buddhist women were shocked as they were asked to work with fake identities on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter in order to dupe rich English-speaking people. Their target clients were mostly in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. They would work from 11pm to 10:30 am, with just an hour’s break at 4:30am.
“We felt trapped,” Lalita said. “You see, as practising Buddhists, we had never deceived anyone in our lives.”
After they refused to abide by their employer’s terms, they were emotionally tortured. They subsequently managed to escape from the centre with the help of friends and family members.
On getting back to Nepal, they lodged a First Investigation Report at the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau of Nepal Police on December 21.
The police on December 22 nabbed two Chinese agents—Chen Yang, 30, a permanent resident of Sichuan, China from Thamel, and Ruan Chaohong, 33, of Fujian, from the Tribhuvan International Airport.
They are now in judicial custody in the Central Jail, Sundhara.
“Because of the information these women provided, we were able to rescue seven other men,” said Superintendent of Police Dan Bahadur Malla, spokesperson for the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau. “These men got wind of the fraud before even reaching the call centre in Laos. They were actually being taken there to work in a beer factory and prepare food for horses.”
Malla told the Post that after the Nepal Police started raiding the Chinese-operated call centres, they started opening branches in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
On July 25 last year, the police raided a call centre in Tinkune run by Chinese operators. Just a day before, they raided a call centre run by a Chinese national in Butwal.
Asked why these call centre operators choose Nepalis, Malla answered: “They think Nepalis can speak good enough English, they come cheap and they are humble.”
At first, it was Juna who got an offer from Chen Yang, who she had met a year ago in Thamel through a friend. They then got chatting over WeChat.
“As I could communicate in Chinese, he became a good friend of mine, and offered me a job in Laos, and also asked me to bring along my other friends,” Juna recalls.
All three—Lalita, Juna and Rojita—are from the same village in Sindhupalchok’s Bhotekoshi Rural Municipality, and have been living in Bauddha since the Gorkha Earthquake in 2015 destroyed their village homes. As they lived near China’s Tatopani border, they learnt to communicate in the language.
The Chinese agent had first planned on flying them out via the Tribhuvan International Airport. But as the Nepal government had tightened tourist visas, he decided to take them abroad via Nepal’s land border.
“When we asked them why we were being made to travel via road, they said they needed to pick up two dozen people from Jhapa,” said Juna.
The group had left Kathmandu on September 2. The trio were taken to Bagdogra International Airport in Siliguri through Jhapa, where their Nepali agent added two Nepali men, aged 27 and 35, to the entourage.
“Those men were from Sindupalchok and Dolakha, and they said the agent was taking them to Laos to work in a beer factory,” Lalita said.
The Nepali agent, acting on the Chinese agent’s directions, took the three women and two men to Kolkata on September 3 where they boarded a plane to Bangkok and then to Laos. They were kept in a hotel in Laos for three days, as part of a “mandatory quarantine”.
“Something did not feel right,” said Juna, 28, the youngest among the three women. At the hotel, a Chinese man in his 50s insisted that Juna stay there with him, but she refused.
“He asked me to tell another agent that I was sick, but I said no,” Juna said. By then, they were gripped by fear and uncertainty.
“I said, I won’t stay here by leaving my friends. I cried. They then flew me over to Ton Pheung in northwest Laos, where our company was located,” said Juna.
By this time, all three of them were already deeply suspicious of their agent’s activities. They would send their location map to their family members back in Nepal, wherever they got internet access. Eventually, they reached their office in Ton Pheung, which was a 22-storey building, on the eighth day after leaving Nepal.
The women were housed on the 13th floor, while their office was on the fourth floor and the third floor was meant for food and dining. There were altogether 13 bodyguards. “They wouldn’t let us venture out of the building,” said Rojita.
The trio were made to work from September 9. “They seized our cellphones and gave us two iPhones with recharge cards and separate numbers, plus a desktop computer, but none of us were acquainted with the new devices,” said Lalita, who could speak Chinese but very little English. They would get their cellphones back only after they returned to their dormitory.
Before their employers handed them the iPhones and desktop computers, they were told that their job was to make fake accounts on social media and befriend those from English-speaking countries. “They had taken two of us to work as Chinese translators. But when they gave us work that would entail communicating in English, our stress-level greatly increased,” said Lalita.
Within a week, Lalita fell sick. The two others implored the manager to send her back to her home country.
In the same big hall, there were other Chinese employees, and everyone had to make at least five new ‘friends’ a day with a fake account, and they had to ensure that their new friends were rich, elderly, and divorced or unmarried men. All of this had to be ascertained online.
In time, the call centre employees would try to persuade the ‘friends’ to invest in cryptocurrency and to make various kinds of bank transfers.
“The supervisor would beat his Chinese employees with a stick for not meeting targets—right in front of us,” Lalita said. “I understood the foul words the supervisor was using. I sensed that I would be facing something similar soon.” Lalita soon developed a high fever and started vomiting blood due to overpowering work pressure and mental stress.
They were made to work throughout the night but, stressed out, they could not sleep even during the day when they were back in their apartment. Eventually, when the Chinese operators came to know that their English was not up to the mark, they added some Chinese nationals to the group, which was now tasked with making friends in countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia and India. But the three of them were reluctant to dupe others.
“When I didn’t go to work because I was sick, some Chinese agent would come into my dormitory and say that I would die there, and that they wouldn’t pay me as I hadn't worked,” said Lalita, with tearful eyes.
After she got back her cellphone, she could speak to her husband back in Nepal but only when those Chinese handlers were not around. She narrated to him the entire story.
Finally, her husband, Rajan, managed to pay off a Nepal-based Chinese agent and Lalita’s employers arranged to have her flown back to Nepal on October 2. But there was no such luck for Juna and Rojita.
“We had to survive, so we acted as if we were working, but we ensured we didn't cheat anyone,” Juna said. “They would not allow us to make video calls. We used only text. That way, we could continue chatting with our ‘clients’ in subsequent days.”
A month after Lalita’s return to Nepal, on November 2, Juna and Rojita’s families sent the agent double the money that was spent on their travel to enable them to return home. Following this, the Chinese agent at the call centre left them outside the building’s gate at midnight, handing them their passports.
“We didn’t have anywhere to go, but after we had walked a few metres, we saw a stupa. It gave us a little hope,” Juna said. “We spent that night there and on the next day, with the help of locals, we reached Louang Namtha Airport.”
Meanwhile, a friend who had studied in China and was living in Laos also helped them.
They made it back to Nepal on November 11 and lodged a complaint at the Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau at Babarmahal, Kathmandu.
After the arrest of two Chinese men in Nepal, the three Nepali women who returned home have been getting life threats.
“Although we survived the place, the Chinese are searching for us through their agents, perhaps to exact revenge as they feel we have spoiled their business by reporting to police,” said Lalita.
She said she is still in contact with the Chinese workers at the call centre in Laos who continue to be exploited.
“Last week, I was told by one of my Chinese friends there that four more Nepalis had been recruited. I fear what might happen to them,” said Lalita.
Malla, spokesperson for Anti-Human Trafficking Bureau, says the same call centre in Laos is still holding over two dozen Nepalis hostage. “We are still investigating, and trying our best to rescue them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lalita’s husband, Rajan, is worried because even though the Chinese agents who duped Lalita are in jail, they could be released any time. “We fear those Chinese may have connections with other Chinese and Nepali political leaders, and they could make life difficult for us,” he said.
(The names of the three women this report is based on as well as the name of one woman’s husband have been changed for privacy reasons.)