Phengma left school in fifth grade to help her parents on their rice fields. One day, the mother of another girl from the village told Phengma of a job opportunity in Thailand where her daughter was already working. The salary was attractive and the employer would provide food and accommodation.
Phengma agreed to go and was taken to Thailand in a service truck. Once in Thailand, Phengma was sent to Mrs. Phen’s food shop where four other Lao girls under the age of 18 were working extremely long hours. Phengma was too slow at food preparation and was instead assigned to do housework, but this did not improve the harsh conditions.
For seven months, Phengma suffered terrible abuse at the hands of Mrs. Phen on a daily basis. She was beaten in the head and torso with a metal ice shovel, tied and hit with a paddle. Mrs. Phen would also pour bathroom cleaning liquid on her, throw chilli powder in her face and repeatedly immerse her head in water. With her bruises and wounds still raw, Phengma was forced to keep working and made to sleep outdoors without bedding. When Phengma asked about her pay, Mrs. Phen claimed to have remitted it to Phengma’s family, but that never happened.
Fortunately, Phengma was able to escape with the help of Mrs. Phen’s neighbors and monks at a nearby temple. Phengma then spent almost two years in a shelter in Thailand before being repatriated to Laos. She was successful in taking legal action against Mrs. Phen and received 20,000 Baht (USD 600) in compensation. But money does not heal the physical and psychological scars she suffered.
In Laos, Phengma was referred to the VFI shelter where she was able to receive ongoing treatment for multiple health problems. She enrolled in a sewing course and was a very determined student, but her previous trauma sometimes made it difficult for her to remember sewing patterns.
After finishing her vocational training, Phengma was employed at VFI’s Dream Weaver shop as a full-time tailor for six months, enabling her to save some money before returning home to start her own small sewing business. Phengma now receives several clients a week and is able to earn an income for her family.
Mee’s family struggled to make ends meet through a range of irregular jobs such as fishing, construction, coffee bean and rice harvesting, and seasonal work. One day, a woman from another district visited to recruit Lao people to work in Thailand. Mee’s family agreed to go. They were told that they would be sent to an aquatic farm where they would receive a salary of 7,500 Baht each.
Mee’s family were instead sent to a pineapple farm where the farm owner seized the family’s money and cellphones. The family and 16 other Lao individuals picked fruit for 12 hours continuously each day and were locked up at times when they weren’t working. Mee was taken to work at a noodle shop and was forbidden to speak with anyone. Her family did not receive any payment at all.
Some time later, one of the workers managed to escape and alert police to the situation. The police arrested the farm owner, and Mee’s family members were sent to different Thai shelters before being progressively repatriated back to Laos.
At the transit center in Vientiane, a VFI social worker met with Mee and gave her information about the VFI shelter and vocational training courses available. Mee enrolled in the tailoring course. At the shelter, she also received regular counseling, informal education, life skills training, and health monitoring. After ten months at the shelter, Mee was ready to return to her village. She had learned how to design and tailor clothes and gained basic literacy in reading and writing Lao.
Within three months of returning home, she earned more than a million kip (USD 120). She has been able to give some of this money to her parents every month and save the rest for the new family she plans to build with her fiancé.
Sang was 15 when she left school and, together with a friend, crossed over to Thailand to seek employment.
Sang initially obtained work on a pomelo farm in Thailand and then as a housekeeper, both at low pay. After nine months, Sang became homesick and tried to return home, but was arrested and repatriated back to her family. Within two weeks, a man from another village approached Sang and her friend with the offer of a well-paying job in Thailand. Enticed by the opportunity to improve her circumstances, Sang agreed and was transported overland to Thailand.
She did not, however, gain employment as was promised. Sang was instead sent to work for a Thai army lieutenant in Bangkok, cleaning houses and working at wholesale stores and construction. Sang was forced to work long hours with no rest days. She was beaten and tortured, denied access to a phone, and forbidden from contacting anyone. She did not receive any salary.
After six long years Sang managed to escape and secure other jobs in shops and restaurants, but was always fearful of the Thai police. Her new employers took advantage of Sang’s status and withheld large portions of her salary. Finally, with some assistance, Sang managed to go to the Lao Embassy in Bangkok and was repatriated in 2016, but without any money.
Sang found out about VFI through peer education in her village. Upon application, Sang was taken in at the VFI shelter in Pakse. She is now studying hairdressing and hopes to open her own beauty salon.
“VFI gave me opportunity that I thought I will never have,” she said. “They gave me a chance to learn and gain knowledge on many issues. I will concentrate on training and practice a lot to improve my skills. Then when I finish the course I will go back home and open my beauty salon to make income for myself and family.”
Meng’s family was displaced by a new hydropower project near their property. They were forced to give up their land and relocate to a different village. With no farmland, the family’s only income source was clearing grass and picking coffee beans. Meng and other youth in the village started to look for jobs to support their families.
Many labor migration brokers came to this village to recruit young people for work in Thailand. The brokers said there were plenty of well-paying jobs available in restaurants and karaoke bars. Meng was attracted to these opportunities and discussed it with her parents, but they were not in favor of her going, as she was only 17.
Not long after that, a VFI social worker visited the village to repatriate a trafficking survivor back home. The social worker led a general education session on human trafficking and the resources provided at the VFI shelter. Meng shared this information with her parents, who supported her interest in attending the shelter for vocational training.
A VFI social worker discussed the plan with Meng, her family, and village authorities. Meng was taken to the VFI shelter and completed a six-month cooking course. During that time, she was also able to improve her literacy and math and learn other skills, such as growing mushrooms and vegetables, raising fish and frogs, and making fruit juice and banana chips. She also attended many training courses to improve her knowledge on human trafficking, safe migration, and child rights so she could become a peer educator.
After completing her training at the shelter, Meng returned to her village to set up a small shop, with some start-up funding from VFI. She is able to use her profits to help pay for her parents’ medical care and support her brother’s education. Meng has innovative plans to expand her business to a meal delivery service in her village and neighboring villages.
Through VFI’s early intervention and education, Meng was given an alternative pathway for her future. Had she resorted to uncontrolled labor migration to Thailand, she would have been at risk of exploitation in domestic servitude, forced labor or even sex slavery.