Slaves I Know: Sovan and Sokal (pt.1)
I know many slaves and former slaves. You may find that hard to believe if you are sitting in a comfortable chair in the western world, but I assure you, slavery is still growing throughout the world. These are true stories which have been told to me by survivors. I will disguise their names and some locations in order to protect their identity and safety.
Consider this typical Cambodian family: Sok’s family. They live in rural Cambodia: very rural. They are a Christian family since 1994. They are very, very poor. The wife has borne 15 children, but only 6 are still living today. Doun tells me why his children died. “They died”, he said, “because I am poor.” Some died from sickness, some died in war, and others died in logging accidents. He has three children and a daughter-in-law who have been slaves. Let me briefly tell you their story and how modern slavery works in Cambodia.
Sovan and Sokal are two young men in their mid-twenties. Both are married and have small children. They eat what they grow and each day is a struggle to survive for themselves, much less their families. One day a rich looking businessman comes into their village. He said he is recruiting workers for a company in Thailand. They eye his gold chain, gold bracelet, diamond rings and quickly become engrossed into a story of how they are going to be able to make a lot of money working in Thailand. They will be paid 200 Baht a day! The wage of $6.70 a day sounds incredible to their ears. This is some three times greater than a simple factory worker in Cambodia is paid. They are told the company will take care of all the details, all they have to do is go to Poipet, on the Thailand border with Cambodia, at the first of May.
He continues to tell them, “Think of it”, he reasons, “working for my company you can make $2,400 a year! Imagine what you could do that that kind of money?”
The whole family is excited and dreams of how they would spend the $2,400 dollars each son would come home with. With that amount of money, they could build their families a decent home, buy more property or buy a new motorcycle and still have money left over to buy everyone of their family members something very nice.
“All you have to do is pay a little down payment of $100 and sign a contract with the company.” The papers are quickly presented. None of the family can read very well, but the representative is clearly a wealthy man who appears honest to them. They quickly sign the papers, even though they cannot read them, and begin to ask their friends and relatives to borrow enough money to pay the deposit. They are thanking God for the opportunity to make so much money. After a few hours of persuading friends and relatives for cash, they are able to come up with the $100 per person and the company representative is on his way.
Now all they have to do is borrow a little more money from their parents and friends to make the journey to Poipet. Poipet is a lawless border town a large amount of human trafficking is going on. The journey costs almost $40, but they figure they can earn the money to pay back the travel expenses without any problem. Arriving at the border, they are told to meet in a dark hut on a backstreet in the town. In the hut they find dozens of other young men waiting to cross the border as well with their company representative. At the border is a different representative.
He again, tells the young men about all the money they are going to make and adds: “The generous salary of 150 Baht ($5.00) per day will make you wealthy.”
“What?”, they protest! “We were promised 200 Baht!”
The company representative tells them that most likely the person who recruited them made a mistake. Previously the company was doing well, but now it is very hard economic times, so the company can only pay 150 Baht. Even though they are upset about the price, the only way they can pay the money back that they borrowed is to go ahead and work. They meet among themselves and they realize that even 150 Baht a day is still pretty good wages. In Cambodia, you still can’t make much that money. In Cambodia the typical physical worker or garment factory worker makes about $2.50 a day.
Early in the morning, they are told they need to prepare documents and a passport to cross the border. They are told the company will arrange everything for them. They take pictures and get spellings of names from the people. Some people have proper birth certificates and family books (an official family document) but most do not. No problem for the company with connections.
The next day, passports have been issued and they are ready to go. They never see their passports. The manager tells them that he will keep them so they don’t get lost or destroyed, because they are very important documents. Without knowing it, this is one of the points where they become trapped into slavery. They never have possession of their travel documents and they are entering a foreign country.
They cross the border in small groups of 4-5 and are told not to talk. There is a company representative with them who speaks both Khmer and Thai and apparently knows all the police and immigration officials. On the Cambodian crossing, the company man walks up to the officials. He hands them all the passports which are quickly stamped and with quick sleight of hand ensures the agreed upon sum passes to the official. Within a minute they are crossing the first checkpoint and walking toward the Thailand checkpoint. As they walk, they pass multiple officers. Some are customs officials, some are health inspectors, some are narcotics police, some are immigration officers. Everyone gets a piece of the pie, because they all know what is going on with these small groups of big-eyed Cambodian young men crossing the international border.
As they walk into the immigration hall on the Thai border side, the company representative immediately walks up to the Immigration officer in charge and speaks fluent Thai to him. He hands the passports with a wad of Thai Baht underneath. The supervising Immigration officer walks up to a desk clerk and hands them the passports to process. On both the Cambodian and Thai border the Immigration computer systems are equipped with scanners to photograph each traveler, but none of these workers are scanned or checked. Within a short amount of time, the passports are done and the small group passes through the Thai border. They are now officially in Thailand. This will be the last glimpse of their passports they will have.
The Thai side of the border is much cleaner than the Cambodian side, but it is very chaotic. Thousands of Cambodians and Thai’s are moving about trying to carry goods and sell their wares in a gigantic market. Most Cambodian’s don’t need a passport to cross the border. If they are only going to the border market, they are allowed to go by simply issuing a pass which is sold by the day for only 10 baht ($0.30). These workers blend into the crowd of people very quickly.
The company representative tells them to sit down and wait at a certain point in the market. Soon a pickup will come and drive them through the various checkpoints ahead. The Thai government knows about the human trafficking on the Thai border, so they have set up various military checkpoints to “combat” the trafficking. All it does is add another level of payoffs.
They are told that if they see any police moving about, they are to start looking at goods in the market stalls so they will not looks suspicious. At one point, a police vehicle moves near them. They quickly get up and pretend to be shopping. The police know what is going on, but they know the company representative and the police will contact him later for their payoff. They move on with only a slight nod to the company man so that he knows to expect them later.
After a few more minutes just waiting, with no instructions, a pickup pulls up. The guys are told to quickly jump in the back of the pickup and sit down on the bed of the pickup truck. From here the company man goes back across the border into Cambodia to prepare another group. They don’t know it, but this is where they will sit for the next 6 hours to the construction site where they will be taken. In May, it is the start of the rainy season where the sun is intensely hot easily reaching 40-43 degrees Celsius (more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and then be followed by torrential downpours in the afternoon. They will become sunburned and face heat exhaustion as well as become soaking wet as the pickup transports them to the worksite.
By evening they arrive at a construction site. They have no idea where they are. They are exhausted, hungry and confused being in this foreign place. The managers are all speaking Thai and now there is a new company translator to talk to them now in Khmer, the Cambodian language. They are lined up in front of the Thai manager at the construction site. They are told they may not leave the worksite at anytime. They have to buy their own food, which the company will cook for them. They are also told where they are assigned to sleep. Each room, 10 feet by 15 feet, is for housing 10 people. The room is made of plywood with a flimsy door. There is only one light bulb in the center of the room and no water. There is temporary toilet set up with three stalls for the hundreds of workers on the site. The final instruction is regarding their pay. The manager tells them they will receive a salary of 100 Baht per day ($3.30), paid at the completion of each month.
The men become furious and some even say in Khmer they should attack the manager. The manger is prepared in advance. Standing around him, are several men with steel pipes in their hands. They know they are beaten. They are angry and tired and all of them begin shouting at the Khmer speaking representative.
The Khmer speaking representative tells them, “There is nothing I can do, we can’t be responsible for what they promised you, they are not official representatives of the company. They are only recruiters.” Now they realized they had been cheated every step of the way. They cannot go back because they have no passports, but the company will not let them leave until they pay off the “debt” that they owe. Though there were never involved in the transactions, every recruiter was paid, every bride paid to officials, every meal they ate, and even the transport to the site, is a debt they have to work off. Without ever signing one paper, they have become a slave to a debt they never knew about.
They men were too angry to sleep, but they went to find their room so they could talk together. When they got there they found no beds and the room was in horrible shape. The walls were only made from 3 cm (1/8” plywood) and you could hear people breathing on the other side of the wall. You could carry on a conversation with a person on the other side of the thin wall with no difficulty at all. Because it was still early in the evening, the other workers were still working on the site. They saw a little shack making food and went to find something to eat.
As they arrived, they were told the price was 20 Baht per meal ($0.70). They were so hungry they needed to eat, so they gathered what little money they had left and bought some packets to share together. They were handed a small styrofoam packet. Inside was a small heap of rice, an egg and some fried vegetables.
Over the next year there was little variation in the food. If they had the money, they would eat two meals a day, but some days they would only eat one meal because they couldn’t afford to eat. That night they went back into their room and talked together to consider their options. They couldn’t run away because they didn’t even know where they were! They couldn’t leave the compound because if they did, they would not be allowed in, but also they didn’t speak a word of Thai. They could never communicate with people on the outside. Even if they found someone they could talk to, they had no more money to pay them to take them to the Cambodian border. Even if they got there, they didn’t have a passport, so they couldn’t cross the border. They were stuck and they knew it. There were slaves.
Note: The second part of Sovan and Sokal’s story will continue tomorrow.