Many workers brought to criminal hubs in Southeast Asia have no idea what they’re getting themselves into, but some are seeking a payday despite the risks. Frontier spoke to two workers – one in online gambling the other in online scams – about their daily lives, working conditions and what brought them to Shwe Kokko.
At precisely 7am each day, Ko Htet* is startled awake by the sound of an alarm blaring from a speaker in the corner of his room. At 18-feet wide, the living quarters are just big enough to accommodate three bunk beds, holding Ko Htet and five others. The only window is sealed shut from the outside with black tape, allowing in just a faint glow of morning light.
“The bedroom is like being locked in a prison,” said Ko Htet. The only difference, he added, is that he has air conditioning.
Ko Htet then lines up outside the bathroom he shares with his five roommates, waiting for his turn to use the toilet and take a shower.
“Breakfast is from 8:30 to 9:30. If we don’t make it in time, we can’t eat,” he said.
Around 300 workers pour out of similar rooms and gather for a basic breakfast of rice, eggs, bread and coffee in a spacious dining hall, chattering in different Asian languages.
“During mealtimes, I heard people talking to each other and realised they’re not all Myanmar nationals,” he said, adding there are people from Thailand, the Philippines, Laos and elsewhere.
“We can’t talk while we’re working, and nobody talks much to each other in the bedroom,” Ko Htet added, saying the workers are suspicious of each other because they believe there are company spies among them. “Even in the bedroom, I don’t dare take pictures or speak out loud on the phone. Important issues can only be communicated by text.”
Two months ago, Ko Htet came to work at the infamous Yatai New City at Shwe Kokko, on the Thai border in Myanmar’s Kayin State. The high-rise settlement has been developed over the past five years by the military-aligned Kayin State Border Guard Force in partnership with Yatai International, a Hong Kong-registered company chaired by a Chinese fugitive who is currently detained in Thailand.
Shwe Kokko’s “new city” was already an alleged hub for online gambling by the time COVID-19 struck in 2020. During the pandemic, it branched into online scams, which have become rampant in Myanmar’s borderlands as well as in Cambodia. Perpetrators of the scams are often lured into compounds with the false promise of legitimate jobs, then held against their will and forced to trick victims into sending the company money.
In some cases, however, the workers have an idea of what they’re getting themselves into. Desperate for money, Ko Htet applied to work as a scammer, despite what he had read about Shwe Kokko in the news.
“At the company I work for, there are two types of jobs: online scams and online gambling. I interviewed for a job as a scammer with a salary of 30,000 baht per month, including food and living expenses,” Ko Htet explained.
But because the scamming targets are often Chinese or Western, Ko Htet lacked the necessary language skills.
“I had to switch to the deposit and withdrawal section of the online gambling side,” he said, where he makes 25,000 baht per month, or around US$720.
Punters can only start gambling once they deposit money in an account controlled by the company, which Ko Htet supervises. He also approves pay-outs to winners, although much more of the money flows from the gamblers to the company.
The workers themselves are paid in cash, but Ko Htet said living in a criminal scam compound, few feel comfortable leaving large amounts of money in their rooms. Instead, the company offers to convert the salary to kyat so they can send it home via KBZPay, a mobile wallet developed by Myanmar’s largest bank.
But there’s a catch. “The exchange rate they give is often 30-50 kyat different from the outside price,” Ko Htet said, so they lose money on every exchange. “When we point this out, they say if we’re not satisfied, we can go outside and exchange in the village, but we don’t have time.”
‘I had to take the risk to feed my family’
Ko Htet and his colleagues are heavily monitored and sworn to secrecy.
“We’re not allowed to take pictures inside the building where we live, and we’re not allowed to talk about the business with people outside. They made us sign a contract saying we wouldn’t even talk about it with our families,” he said.
They are also banned from using their phones to communicate with the outside world, so most workers leave them in their bedrooms and only use them in private.
Ko Htet said that if the company found him using his phone, including to speak to Frontier, he would be fired immediately. Because it would be a violation of his contract, he’d have to pay out the remaining salary. If he wanted to quit the job early, he’d also have to pay out his contract, effectively holding him hostage.
Ko Htet is contracted for six months, so if he quit after two months, for example, he would have to pay four months’ salary, which comes out to 100,000 baht or nearly $2,900.
Getting the job also cost money. A broker brought him to Myawaddy, south of Shwe Kokko on the Thai-Myanmar border, where he had to pay the man 8,000 baht to secure an interview. He also spent another 1,000 baht on transport and accommodation.
Ko Htet had to borrow money from his mother-in-law to cover his fees because he and his wife lacked income. The couple lost their jobs after the 2021 military coup, with the wife joining a mass strike of civil servants known as the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Frontier has withheld some personal details, like Ko Htet’s former profession and hometown, to protect his identity.
“After the interview, I had to wait for the results in a guest house in Myawaddy. At the time, I was nervous and afraid that I would have to go home without a job,” Ko Htet said. “Luckily, I passed the interview and the next day I travelled to Shwe Kokko.”
His wife and son, who had accompanied him to Myawaddy, then went back to her distant hometown, and he continues to send money to them every month.
“I was worried because I had read about Shwe Kokko in the news, but I had to take the risk to feed my family,” he said.
In the two months Ko Htet has worked at Shwe Kokko, he said he has only left the city once. He works every day of the week – from 10am to 10pm, including a 45-minute lunch break – with just a half-day off on Sundays. Dinner is at 6pm, with employees expected to work while they eat.
Despite the nearly 12-hour workday, nobody is paid overtime.
Forced labour and beatings
Ko Htet first heard about the job through a former colleague from his hometown, Ko Htoo*, who has been working as a scammer for the last year. Ko Htoo speaks Chinese and impressed his boss, quickly rising to a supervisory position.
Ko Htoo strikes up relationships with people online and convinces them to put their money in made-up investments.
“Sometimes you have to make them believe you’re friends, sometimes you have to convince them that you’re online lovers. After that, I tell the person about a fake business created by the company and persuade them to invest in it,” he explained, saying once the money is deposited, he cuts off contact.
Ko Htoo earns around 40,000 baht per month. Because living expenses and meals are covered by the company, he also sends his entire salary home.
“There are other people who exclusively search for targets, and then send the chatters to talk to them. Those people are called ‘finders’ and earn even more.”
Despite his more senior position, Ko Htoo’s lifestyle and working hours are no different from Ko Htet’s. He also only has a half-day off each week and has only been outside Shwe Kokko on his own once in the last year.
He has, however, been assigned new duties in a different business scheme, which allows him to periodically leave the compound with his supervisor. Ko Htoo said his company is establishing cannabis plantations just outside Shwe Kokko, with around 100 small plants already in the ground for the pilot project.
“I heard that if the pilot project is successful, there will be about 100 acres,” Ko Htoo said. “I can’t go outside when I go to check on the plants because I have to go in my boss’s car.”
Ko Htoo also confirmed some of the more shocking reports from media outlets – including that some workers are held against their will, beaten and forced to essentially pay ransoms.
“Last year, a worker who lived in my room tried to quit his job. But he hadn’t fulfilled his contract, so he had to pay compensation, but he tried to run away instead. He was caught by the guards outside and was beaten,” Ko Htoo said, adding the victim was from another mainland Southeast Asian country. He said the man was eventually able to contact people back home, who paid the compensation on his behalf, and then he was released.
Ko Htet said workers are monitored by CCTV and “Chinese” guards, who cut their wages if they feel they are slacking off. He and Ko Htet claimed the companies they work for are managed by Myanmar Yatai International, the Yatai-BGF joint venture, which said in a statement in May that any reports of criminal activity in Shwe Kokko are “false and fabricated”.
“All personnel who come to Yatai [New City] have full personal freedom and rights, and incidents such as extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking have nothing to do with our company,” it said.
Ko Htet claimed that soon after that statement, his company made an internal announcement that workers can file a complaint if they experience wage cuts, involuntary detention or physical abuse.
However, “No one dares to complain,” said Ko Htet.
At 10pm, another alarm sounds, indicating that the working day is over. Exhausted, Ko Htet and the others file back into their rooms. Most line up to take another shower, some text on their phones, many crack open a drink to unwind, and others go straight to sleep.
In nine hours, the alarm will ring again.
*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons