In May 2023, Philippine law enforcement agencies freed over 1000 workers from an industrial-scale cyber scam hub 90 kilometres north of Manila. The workers came from 10 different countries around Asia. Their ‘employers’ had confiscated their passports, not allowed them to leave the compound and forced them to work for up to 18 hours a day in ‘prison-like’ conditions.
This was not a one-off cyber scam business. There are many such illicit enterprises in Southeast Asia — notably in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos — that have been established in recent years using the same business model. This involves luring educated and computer-literate young people to apply for high-paying jobs in fields such as marketing and currency trading through adverts on social media or even through personal contacts. Free travel to the new workplace and meals are an added draw.
But when the job-seekers reach Bangkok, the preferred entry point for mainland Southeast Asia, they are whisked off by bus, taken across land borders and dumped into fortified compounds with armed guards. They have been trafficked. Their passports are confiscated, contracts torn up and they are told to learn the sales routines for particular cyber scams. The fledgling scammers must work 14 hours per day or more, trying to win the confidence of mainly Americans, Europeans and Australians to persuade them of the authenticity of a fake business opportunity or romance.