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'We were given electric shocks if we didn’t meet daily targets'

The Times of India logo The Times of India 07-10-2022 Bosco Dominique
© Provided by The Times of India

"I got my freedom on August 15." C Stephen Wesley’s voice trembles as he says the words. And relives the moment the Myanmar army personnel barged into the office where he was kept hostage in a horrific case of job trafficking, where more than 800 Indians were forced to work in companies engaged in cybercrime.

"The army took us to their headquarters. They asked us a lot of questions, then dropped us back in our office. We were frightened about what would happen," says the 29-year-old techie from Coimbatore, who was among the 13 people from Tamil Nadu rescued from the job racket.

READ ALSO: Our lives in peril if not rescued in a week: Indians in Myanmar

Stephen’s nightmare began three months ago. Stephen, who worked as a graphic designer in Bengaluru, quit his j ob and moved to Coimbatore as a freelance consultant after the pandemic broke out in 2020. In July, one of his friends referred him to a recruitment agency, which got him an interview in Dubai for a job in Thailand. “There were six others including a woman who were interviewed, both in person and through videoconferences. The agency told us we were all selected by a company in Thailand,” says Stephen.

The seven people stayed in Dubai for a fortnight after which they were flown from Dubai to Bangkok. "We were not given work visas. A couple of Thai locals received us at the airport and got us arrival visas," recalls Stephen.

READ ALSO: Lured to Thailand, 300 Indians now forced into cybercrime in Myanmar

Two taxis then picked them up and took them to Mae Sot, a place more than 450km from Bangkok. Stephen says it was en route to Mae Sot that the fear began to set in. "The taxis suddenly came to a halt in front of two trucks and we were ordered to get in. They took us through a forest where there were more than 300 cowsheds and dropped us near a river, which we weremade to cross in a boat."

The seven were handed over to two people in army uniform carrying guns. "They made us kneel for 15 minutes and took photos of our passports. Then another vehicle appeared and took us to an office, a few kilometres from there."

Cramped office, forced into contract

"The office was cramped," says Stephen, adding that they were forced to sign a oneyear contract. "The management collected our passports and started explaining the nature of work." This was when the nightmare began to unfold. "We realised the company was engaged in cryptocurrency fraud. The modus operandi is to create fake accounts in the name of models and lure rich businessmen, who have registered on dating apps. They were then convinced to use their mobile applications to invest in the stock market."

The company had also hired women to answer customer calls, so as not to arouse suspicion. "The company gave good returns in the beginning when customers invested small amounts like $100 or $200. But when the customers invest huge sums of money like above $10,000, the company will siphon off the money and then block them," says Stephen.

READ ALSO: 45 Indians trapped in fake job rackets in Myanmar rescued

Every employee was given a target – they had to initiate contact with at least 50 peoplea day. And punished if they didn’t meet the target. "The security had small electric shock batons and employees who refused to work or meet the targets were punished with them," he said.

Rescued … then jailed

After recusing 16 people from the company, the Myanmar army accommodated them at their headquarters for a day, after which they were quarantined for a week until the army personnel recovered their passports from their employer. As soon as they got their passports and mobile phones back, the army personnel gave them directions on how to cross the forest and reach the river. "It was 6am. The mobile network was poor. We found itdifficult to find our way through the forest. We walked more than 5km carrying our luggage, to reach the river," says Stephen.

They managed to reach a road after crossing a river. They knew the nearest bus stand was at Mae Sot, which was about 20km from where they were stranded. “We started walking towards the bus stand, but after about 8km, we were suddenly surrounded at gunpoint by Thai police.”

The police seized their mobile phones and passports and took them to the immigration office in Tak Province, and later to Mae Sot police station. "We were kept in a prison cell for two days without adequate food and water. We were again shifted to the human trafficking victim centre where we spent the next 15 days. We were produced before a court that imposed a penalty of 4000 Thai Baht (roughly Rs 9,000). When we explained that we did not have any money, we were taken to the human trafficking victim centre where we spent another six days."

READ ALSO: 'We are slaves now... fear being shot,' say Indians held hostage in Myanmar

The immigration officials took the 16 Indians along with 10 foreigners who were also trapped in the racket in a small vehicle that could not accommodate more than eight people.

"We travelled almost nine hours to Bangkok, where we lodged at a detention centre. We were treated like criminals. Some others in the jail took our phones, and we had to pay them to allow us to make calls from our mobile phones. We never thought we would return to India."

With intervention from the Indian embassy, Stephen and the 15 others reached India on October 4. His nightmare lasted more than 96 days.

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