See inside the dark abyss of an online business in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville where over 20 Thais were tricked into leaving home for a promising salary, only to find themselves forced to work in an online fraud scheme, a growing trend in illegal work that shades into human trafficking and modern day slavery in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In May 2021, Lek (real name omitted for safety reasons), 36, left her hometown in Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand for Sihanoukville, along with her husband, daughter and younger sister. She was looking for a career with a well-paid online job following an invitation from a person she knows.
“The person who invited me was someone I knew in the village, a friend, but not that close. They invited this person and that person. Many people from the village went. I knew that when they went, they got money, so I wanted to try too.
“It’s like there they want people, they want a lot, do you want to go? Salaries were thirty thousand baht, with a percentage on top, so forty to fifty thousand all told. It looked like a nice amount. And I was unemployed, so we all went there.”
2 months later, Lek, her family, and 20 other Thais desperately pleaded with the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh to rescue them after they were forced to find customers for a fraud-related online application, with failure ending in punishment or even physical injury.
When some of them asked to quit, the employer said all of them had debts of several tens of thousands of baht, even a hundred thousand baht, for bringing them to Cambodia. They were also threatened with being sold to other Chinese employers in Cambodia.
No rescue was attempted by the authorities. Their freedom came when the fraud business ended up broke, an unusual incident that is rarely heard of.
Lek and her family started their journey with a flight from Chiang Rai to Don Muang Airport in Bangkok. From there, a van took them to Sa Kaeo, a province bordering Cambodia’s Poi Pet, a large municipality known for its thriving casinos. They were made to wait at a hotel on the border until a truck picked them up to take them somewhere along the border to cross into Cambodia on foot with many other groups numbering 40-50 in total.
“They made us put our phones on silent mode, no loud noises. … There were so many people. We walked in single file to Poi Pet through the jungle. We walked from midnight to 3-4 in the morning. We walked in the dark. Some peoples’ shoes wore out, some were tired, dispirited.
“Sometimes we ran, sometimes we dodged, dodged the Cambodian soldiers. … There were lots of soldiers in the jungle, but they [the smugglers] had people all along the way, along the path that they led us on. There were 40, 50, 60, or even 100 of their people along the way. They seemed to exchange signals, whistling to each other. When the other side answered okay, we could be passed on to the next stage. The other side said OK, but the side that picked us up would not go on. They had another side waiting in the jungle to take us through another stage. It was like that 4-5 times. Some [smugglers] climbed the trees, some hid in the jungle. They would whistle to each other, exchanging signals.”
Arriving at Poi Pet at 4 am, Lek and the others were told to wait inside the nearby jungle or plantations. At 6-7 am, they were separated into groups based on their destination: Phnom Penh, Poi Pet and Sihanoukville, and cars came to take them.
Lek and family were first taken to Phnom Penh. There, Lek said she met a broker who introduced himself as a Chinese who had lived in Phnom Penh for 20-30 years. They spent a night there before being taken to Sihanoukville by van. They were put in quarantine for a week upon arrival, and people who were ill were separated and treated.
After a week, Lek’s new life began in a Cambodian city known for its huge special economic zone. She was taken to the place where she lived and worked.
Photos of where Lek worked and lived. The sign at the entrance says ‘No entry allowed. Covid-19 patients inside’.
The location of the office Lek shared when she went for help.
She was put to work at ‘Everyone Buy’, an online bidding application where bidders have a chance to win a lucky draw and be rewarded. The job of Lek and the team was to invite other Thais to join the bidding.
One thing to be noted is that the URL of the application presented in the website is ‘everyone.xichen’, not Everyone Buy.
As of the time of writing, the app is still accessible, even though the business has gone bankrupt. There is no evidence that the Thai authorities have attempted to block or issue a warning for this site.
An example of the Everyone Buy user interface.
Perhaps due to the app’s untrustworthy design or the poor pandemic economy, she and the team often failed to achieve the boss’s expectations. Those who failed to invite enough customers would either be forced to run around the facility’s basketball court for a couple hours, deprived of dinner or physically injured.
Facing failure and brutality, they decided to use their remaining money to hire their friends to play the app.
“It started with me having to find clients. Some couldn’t do it. Each day, they had us find 20, 30, 40 clients. One day only 5, another day 10, and others 20, 30, 40 until we completed 100 clients in 15 days. If we couldn’t do it, they would have us run. Some couldn’t run. They ran until they were tired, exhausted. We didn’t even know that we had a price, a price on our heads, the cost of medicine, the cost of things I don’t know where they came from.
“They swore at us. ‘You fuckers each have a price of 100,000 on your head, plus quarantine and medicine costs for another 100,000 per person, so it’s 200,000 in total.’ They also told us that the medicine cost and price of each person was different. It was strictly forbidden to ask each other how much for each person. … Asking about salaries was also banned. The salary of each person was also different.”
When Covid-19 meets the internet, it is a new form of slavery
According to Lek, no help ever succeeded in reaching her and friends. What she heard from her employers was that the Cambodian police had come to the office a couple of times but ended up leaving without rescuing them. They were released with some money to get back to Thailand in November 2021 after Everyone Buy could not make any profit.
According to Lek’s statement, the continual calls for help and their lack of language skills may have made it difficult for the employer to sell them off to other companies. The fact that the employer had caught wind of them contacting the Embassy and the media may also have pressured the employer into conceding when they asked for a token amount of money to leave.
The return by bus of Lek and six others was facilitated by the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh Less than 10 other Thais were left behind to continue working in the company’s erotic LINE group, a new line after the former operation failed. According to Lek, the LINE group was first set up to lure people to spend money in a new hourly-drawn lottery app. Lek and her colleagues were first disguised as customers to encourage real customers to try the app. The group later turned into one that offered a paid pornography service.
Their fates were still unknown as of February 2022.
Fearing reprisal, another person who was released from the company and arrived in Thailand safely refused to be interviewed.
In the course of three months spent contacting victims and relatives, the families tried to get the story into the media. One particular private TV outlet refused to report the issue, according to the victims' relatives.
A photo of the foot of one victim who was forced to run around the basketball court as a punishment.
The story of Lek and her colleagues is but one among thousands of Thais who decided to leave home for a better life during the Covid-19 pandemic. Naruchai Ninnad, Director of the Protection of Thai Nationals Abroad Division, Department of Consular Affairs, said calls for help to the Department have significantly increased in 2021 compared to 2020.
In January-September 2021 alone, 226 Thai nationals were rescued from human trafficking-related situations while for the whole of 2020 the number was 126. Most of the rescues involved sex work and fisheries.
From August to December 2021 alone, the Department received an average of 25 calls for help each month from Cambodia, a significant rise from 5-6 calls earlier. Adding up with the human trafficking-related cases mentioned earlier, a total of 500-700 victims of this kind were helped in 2021.
“The first kind is working in an online casino, which is illegal. They [employers] will have them work there, have them make calls to invite people for online gambling. The second kind is working in a call centre gang, SMS gang, or gang that makes websites, social media or other online things to invite and lure Thais into investing or giving them money. This is work they were assigned and not the work that had been agreed upon at the outset. If they are not working, they will be confined, starved, may be physically injured too, and may be threatened with being sold to the next employer,” said Naruchai.
Naruchai raised two difficulties in rescuing Thais from these kinds of businesses. First, information may be leaked after the Thai Embassy sends information to the local authorities, resulting in the criminals either fleeing or taking reprisals against those who called for help. Second, the rescue and investigation process can take up to a month before the victims can be returned to Thailand.
This statement fits with what Lek had experienced.
“The police couldn’t help. It seemed like before they came, the police told them that today there will be an inspection. Cambodian soldiers will tell the people inside that someone Thai called the Thai Embassy, and tomorrow they would come.
A group of people Lek claimed to be her employers, standing in the basketball court used to punish employees who could not find enough clients.
“There was a case of a Cambodian woman. Inside there was also prostitution as karaoke with the women selling their bodies. This Cambodian woman first came intending to work as a prostitute, but her looks did not pass.
“So, they took this Cambodian woman to work as an admin with us. But this woman couldn’t speak Thai, so how would she work as an admin? So, she didn’t do it. She said she wanted to be taken back. The employer said once she arrived, if she didn’t work, it could not be. … Her price was a hundred thousand [baht]. She had to bring the money if she wanted to go back. The woman had no money. So, she informed the Cambodian authorities but they couldn’t help her either.”
New issue for all
Interviews from experts on migration and law enforcement show that this kind of fraud and smuggling has been seen after Covid-19 spread. In September 2020, the Nikkei Asian Review found an influx of gambling businesses into Cambodia as they fled tight restrictions in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Besides Thais, Chinese and Filipinos also fell victim to this scheme.
Office working conditions in a clandestine photo taken by Lek.
Prawit Roikaew, a prosecutor from the Human Trafficking Division, Office of the Attorney General, said there have been no cases from Cambodia that can be prosecuted as human trafficking. What is happening is something new stemming from people seeking better economic opportunities during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Similar cases can also be found in Lao PDR and Myanmar.
The legal procedure is that the rescued Thais will be subjected to interviews in order to categorise whether they are victims of human trafficking, forced labour or receiving unfair wages, different offences under the law.
Prawit was reluctant to say whether the owners of these businesses are Chinese, citing possible damage to international relations from accusations with no clear legal proof.
“For those employers on that side [Cambodia], I can similarly say that it may not be that they are Cambodian themselves. They may be from other countries, and we are now still finding no clear information about what their nationalities really are. But from what I’ve heard, they’re probably not Cambodian. But there may be some Cambodians involved but the owner [may not be Cambodian],” said Prawit.
The prosecutor, who has been fighting human trafficking cases, said that the Thai police have been in contact with the Cambodian police. He sees this as a necessary step to show how determined Thai authorities are on human trafficking and forced labour issues.
Prawit’s call for determination took place just as Thailand was downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List by the US Department of State which found fault with government efforts to address forced labour and trafficking issues particularly in the fishing, seafood and garment sectors. Also noteworthy is the scandalous case in 2015 when Thai police and a high-ranking navy officer were involved in smuggling Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Malaysia.
Pol Maj Paween Pongsirin, then Deputy Commissioner of the Provincial Police Region 8, was appointed to lead the investigation, which led to the arrest of over 100 people, including police and military officers. However, the investigation was cut short from pressure from higher-up and Pol Maj Paween ended up being forced to resign from the police for his own safety and seek asylum in Australia. In 2022, he revealed that he had been pressured by high-ranking officers to stop the investigation and resign.
A meeting in Cambodia of Thai and Cambodian police over a raid on a call centre fraud operation in Cambodia. (Source: Thai News Agency)
“The Thai authorities may have to look ahead. Over and above collecting evidence, we may have to go to talk with the country where the suspect holds nationality to ask for cooperation. because there will be issues of extradition and all sorts of other issues, because many countries will refuse to send their own people to be prosecuted in another country.”
“So, this is about international law, extradition, requesting their country of origin to investigate and punish their own people in their own country.”
Prawit raised other difficulties in cross-border cooperation. The understanding and priority of other countries over this issue may be lower than other issues, like illegal entry. The language barrier also poses a challenge in non-English speaking countries.
“Some destination countries do not really understand and are not very cooperative. Or sometimes, regarding witnesses and evidence, I have to say that legal systems are not the same. So the views on evidence may be different. There may sometimes be prosecutions in their courts, but the procedures and methods are not the same. The evidence that they use may not coincide much with what we need.
“One more issue may be a case where an international investigation takes a lot of time. In some countries, I won’t say which, suppose we ask for cooperation, and formally ask for evidence, we don’t get it for years. Sometimes when we talk to them, they would say they also had no idea what to do because what we requested, we knew what it was, but in their country, they don’t know what agencies to send this kind of request to for processing,” said Prawit.
Khathaleeya Liamdee, a researcher from the Mekong Study Centre, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, who studies Thai-Cambodian migration, said the Covid-19 pandemic is an important factor that contributes to this kind of migration that she sees it as unusual and new.
According to Khathaleeya, the Thai-Cambodian border shutdown to prevent the spread of disease was a huge blow to casino businesses along the border and elsewhere as Thai customers, a major part of their clientele, were unable to gamble. So the businesses had to find a way out of the problem via online platforms.
“The online casino business that really boomed during the Covid era, I think, was one part of an attempt to find income for criminal gangs using technological development that we see from the SMS that we have perhaps all received, from dating apps that use random profile photos to chat with us and tricked us into meeting, talking to them, and transferring money to them.
“Online casinos are something that uses more workers. SMS may only use a translation programme or contact people. But online casinos that interest Thais into risking their lives to work in Cambodia are something where Thai people are made to interact with Thai people. It’s like having Thai people trick each other. It’s like creating more trust because of the use of the same language.”
Beware of ‘too good to be true’ offers
As of February 2022, Lek was able to begin another chapter of her life with her family in Thailand. She has been saving money to take another shot at working abroad again, a decision shared by many other victims. What is different is that she is now more cautious.
“Don’t be misled easily, don’t just look at the money which turns us into the living dead. Living in a place like that, we were lucky to be able to get back because many who were tricked into going cannot come back.
“Like there was news like some were killed and thrown into the sea, because it is close to the sea, so throwing them into the sea, that’s it. … They saw me just as an alien who went to work over there. I went there illegally. They don’t care. They would do anything to us,” said Lek.
Naruchai from the Protection of Thai Nationals Abroad Division warned Thais who are looking for jobs abroad that they should consider it thoroughly. They should also study information about working abroad and have the emergency hotline number of Thai Consular Affairs with them.
“The most important thing first, before travelling abroad, especially for work, is that you should study the details really well. Anything that may be a bit excessive, like travelling without passports, without a visa, we know quite well should not be possible. Or going and getting a salary of thirty, forty, fifty thousand without a formal contract, that must be checked out.”
“If there is any doubt, you should ask the Ministry of Labour, Department of Employment, because the Department is the main agency that provides advice and takes care of Thai people that are going abroad to work.
“You should have the number and contact details of the Thai authorities that will assist and take care of you if you get into trouble in another country, and definitely the Thai Embassy in those countries or a Consulate in those countries, including the hotline of the Consular Affairs Department that takes calls 24 hours a day. Because if anything happens, at least you have these numbers and you don’t have to waste time looking them up, because when you are in distress or in danger, it will be harder to find the numbers than making a call or making a secret call,” said Naruchai.