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The Unknown Workers: Child Labor in Thailand

 A look at the issue of child labor, an infringement upon human rights, in Thailand and what we, as global citizens, can do about it...





     Historians surmise that, since the beginning of time, there has always been some kind of hierarchical social structure that distinctly separates the upper class from the lower, working- class. Today’s modern societies of the 21st century reflect a similar structure to that of before the medieval serfdom and even before the Israelite slavery of Biblical Egypt. There has always been a working group.

     In the case of Thailand, Thailand’s recent globalization, growing economy, and surging export industries have created the demand for a working-class, further exemplifying the timeless hierarchical social structure[i]. In other words, Thailand needs a working class and inexpensive labor to sustain its export industries, the base of Thailand’s economy[ii].

      International trade isn’t a foreign concept to the Thai people as Thailand has been engaging in trade on the international scene since 1249, during the reign of its first kingdom. In the days preceding globalization, Thailand ran a local, self-sufficient economy. Any surplus from the export industries would be given to or monopolized by the Thai government. Thailand’s economy wasn't dependent upon exporting goods, yet Thailand was known for exporting sugar, rice, wood, silk, handicrafts, etc[iii].

     Many years later, in 1868, Thai King Rama V wished for Thailand to remain a sovereign nation amongst the other feuding international nations; therefore, King Rama created more trade agreements and diplomatic alliances to establish Thailand as a sovereign nation. At this point, Thailand’s export industries became even more important because they now played an integral role in supporting Thailand’s sovereignty[iv].

     After World War II, Thailand’s export industries grew in proportion to the international demand. During the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, half of the rice grown in Thailand was for exports. By this point, Thailand, a developing and modernizing country, aimed to participate in the race for globalization and therefore crafted its economy accordingly. Seeking globalization, Thailand increased its export industries to trade on the international scene[v].

     As Thailand allowed its export industries and economy to grow in order to become more globalized, Thailand had to secure a means of supporting its export industries. To have stable export industries, Thailand must have a working class to provide the labor. To have profitable export industries, Thailand must have an inexpensive source of labor for the creation of export products[vi]. The growing export industries in Thailand created a demand for the inexpensive labor of a working-class, or child labor. In Thailand as in many other South-East Asian countries, children are the most inexpensive source of labor, and it is therefore profitable to use them as the working force in the demanding export industries[vii].




     Estimations for the current number of child laborers in Thailand vary greatly. The estimations are dependent upon the source providing the information[viii]. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s International Labor Bureau pinpoints the number of 4 million child laborers in Thailand, defined as workers below the age of 18[ix]. These 4 million children are exploited in order to cheaply create products for the popular export industries: garments, leather bags, food and shrimp, gems, and seafood. In Thailand, the legal minimum working age is 13 years old; however, many child laborers in Thailand fall well below the minimum working age. And those barely eligible to work legally are working beyond the minimal "light work" load[x]. Child labor in Thailand is often characterized by the extensive working hours each day, sub-standard working conditions, and minimal compensation.

     In Thailand, children workers are used in the garment, leather bag, gem, and food processing industries, among others[xi]. In the setting of a garment factory, a child worker will earn approximately 500 baht per month or $15 USD, which is minimal in comparison to the 100 baht, or $3 USD, in rent, food costs, and training fees that a child laborer must pay their employers[xii]. Typical child laborers will work from hours such as 8 a.m. to 12 midnight, working a total of 16 hours each day[xiii]. A sixteen-hour working day is not limited to child laborers in the garment industry, but is characteristic of all other industries as well. In the garment and leather bag industries, child laborers are expected to run sewing machines for hours straight. In the gem industry, child laborers polish invaluable gems in poorly lit shops, and are not even paid a fraction of the gem’s price for their labor. In the food processing industry, child laborers may be asked to skin live animals or systemically slaughter animals for processing[xiv]. Regardless of the industry, children are all subject to the same working conditions, interminable hours, and inadequate wages. In Thailand, child labor is preferred to adult labor because children are capable of being manipulated, cost less to maintain, and settle for lesser wages.

     The child laborers in Thailand are not simply Thai children who do not attend school but are rather children from bordering, poverty-stricken countries such as Cambodia and Burma[xv]. These children from neighboring countries travel to Thailand in search of job opportunities that their home countries cannot offer. Many children travel to Thailand in search of incomes, not out of choice, but because they have no other alternative of earning money and must aid their families ensnared in poverty back home[xvi].[xvi]. Child laborers who are foreigners in Thailand are disadvantaged beyond the normal Thai child laborer because these foreigners don’t have the right to the police, a working command of the local language, or healthcare in the case of an emergency[xvii].

     The foreign child laborers in Thailand fill the work demand of the export industries while their Thai peers are educated until the age of 16[xviii]. By importing child laborers, Thailand is able to keep its own children in schools, and the future Thai generations will be more academically educated, as opposed to having Thai children educated in the labor field. Due to its importation of child laborers, Thailand is able to develop its generation of future leaders while maintaining a steady, booming export industry and providing the foreign child laborers with the needed employment. There is great international demand for Thailand’s export products, and the only way Thailand can maintain its level of export success is through the utilization of its cheap source of labor: child labor. As long as the international demands for Thailand’s exports continue, so will the business of child labor.

     Typically, child laborers enter the work force either out of necessity or because they are coaxed or forced. The kidnapping of children is increasingly common in countries like Burma and Cambodia, where children regularly disappear never to be seen by their families again. It is estimated that over 100 illegal Burmese alone enter Thailand every day[xix]. They are then forced to work as beggars, prostitutes and laborers, often working for as little as 20 baht or 60 cents a day[xx]. There are also recruiting agencies that lure children into Thailand with promises of work and fair pay, saying they need work only long enough to repay their travel debts. Yet the debts never seem to shrink and children face the unpleasant surprise of mistreatment and minimal wages. Moreover, by being child laborers, children forfeit not only their childhood but their future, remaining largely illiterate and under-educated with little hope of later upward social mobility. This creates a social hierarchy of lowly laborers, middlemen, employers and businessmen, the middle and upper classes, and government officials to form a highly stratified society that offers little hope of advancement for the poor child laborer working for less than a dollar a day.

     When children engage in child labor, they are forced to accustom themselves to the lifestyle of an adult. Child laborers must learn to perform their tasks at a high level, build high endurances to work long hours, cope with mistreatment, and learn to look after themselves. Most of these skills are acquired naturally over time through the normal development of a child to a teenager to an adult; however, if the process of maturation and period of childhood is bypassed, as in the case of child laborers, the children are forced to instantaneously grow up[xxv]. Considering the case of Sawai, the child worker in the garment factory, it is evident that Sawai had to accustom herself to working long hours and watching after herself. Sawai’s father became injured and then leaned on Sawai to support the family, so after her father’s accident, Sawai had to progress from a carefree child to income-oriented adult worker. Sawai and all other child laborers lose their childhoods through the rapid adjustment to the adult lifestyle due to working in an environment suitable for grown-ups[xxvi].[xxvi]. The swift maturation inflicted upon child laborers often disrupts the children’s mental development as well as formation of personalities.

     Although knowledge of child labor in Southeast Asia and particularly in Thailand is widespread, little is being done to change the reality of so many children involved in labor and commercial sexual exploitation. Partially, this cycle is perpetuated by families who sell their children or hire them out to be used as beggars[xxi]; however, interference on a national and international level is also lacking. Thai government officials themselves are suspected of being involved in the trafficking of children from Burma[xxii] and the Thai government has not fully complied with international standards against trafficking[xxiii]. Although new Thai laws to keep local children in school longer have helped decrease the number of Thai children working under the legal working age, this has only served to increase the trafficking of children from neighboring countries. A further problem is denial. In a police raid of a Thai shrimp company, 800 Burmese men, women and children were found imprisoned behind five-meter walls with razor wire in a compound patrolled by army guards. When asked to comment, the president of the Thai Frozen Foods Association said that trafficked people and children are never used in the factory work[xxiv]. Fed by Thailand’s dependence on child labor to sustain their export trade, the outsourcing of international companies to Southeast Asia in search of cheap labor, and the inevitable desire for growing profits both within Thailand and abroad has led the international community to largely turn a blind eye to labor rights violations. 




The problems of the world are so complex and pervasive that no individual or even group of individuals can pretend to be able to offer a panacea to solve them. One solution may address certain aspects of a problem and cause others to arise. Only by a process of trial and error and more trial can we attempt to make the world a little better, one problem at a time.

     The first step is always awareness and education. Before we know and know enough about a problem we cannot possibly know the means by which to solve it. Child labor is a widespread and largely hidden human rights issue. Children work locked up and hidden from the public eye. Hardly anyone knows big names like McDonald’s, Disney and Mattel are companies guilty of using child labor to make their products. Few know child laborers are paid a mere $0.60 a day and the kinds of injuries they can suffer as a result of their work and the treatment of their employers.

     Even people who know of the existence of child labor are detached from the problem, unable to relate to the experiences of the children involved. Therefore, as part of our awareness project at Singapore American School, we have decided to have a school-wide child labor awareness activity. Activities will be set up to simulate a child laborer’s work, specifically in the garment industry – cutting cloth, stapling it together and sewing buttons to create a shirt as a finished piece – all done for time and neatness with satisfactory work rewarded (prize for the winning team) and unsatisfactory work punished. While one person is running the activity, another will be speaking to the audience, educating them on the background and description of the issue, saying important facts and ways in which students can do their part to solve the problem. This way, not only will we spread awareness, but hopefully students will also feel the topic hit closer to home.


Activity Outline



(very simple to put together - only t-shirt sized cloth, scissors, a stapler, buttons, needles and thread are necessary)



Step 1:

(here students cut cloth on pre-traced lines in the shape and size of a t-shirt)



Step 2:

(here students staple two t-shirt-shaped cloths together on pre-traced staple lines)



Step 3:

(here students sew buttons on pre-traced circles)



     Of course, there is always the possibility of the trial ending in error. Will students show up? Will they be enthusiastic about the activities set up and will the audience be attentive to the information presented? Will it be a one-day thing, or will the experience stay with students and help shape their views on the topic? To help make the activity a success, a lot of preparation and planning will go into it – selecting student volunteers, choosing the activities and the information to make the activity as impactful as possible. A follow-up can be done a week later with a short video on the school morning show to remind students, refresh what they have learned and hopefully make the information stay with them for longer.

     We hope to reach out and make students, who in Singapore are immersed in the exact environment where child labor is so widespread, aware of the issue, actually feel its personal importance and eventually be equipped to do something about it.




There are 4 million child laborers in Thailand, with the Asia-Pacific region being the area where child labor is most widespread. With the growth of outsourcing and the demand for cheap labor, the number of child laborers in Southeast Asia has jumped to an astounding 122 million. These children work mainly in export industries, such as in the production of garments, leather bags, seafood and gems. Some children are forced to work for the sex industry as prostitutes and others are rented out as beggars. The average child laborer earns about 500baht, or 15USD per month, with beggars working for a mere $0.60USD per day. Paid hardly enough to cover their expenses, children are trapped in an environment where they are overworked and mistreated.

     Foreign children are even further disadvantaged. Since child labor in Thailand is not limited to local children, children, most often from Burma or Cambodia, are kidnapped and trafficked into the country illegally. These children are not protected by any laws and have no command of the local language – they are even further bound by the system forced upon them.

     In Thailand, child labor laws are loose and poorly enforced. Children are taken to work in small groups in houses, making them harder to find. Many government officials are thought to be involved, encouraging the exploitative system of cheap labor for profit. Child labor exists mainly for economic reasons but also has grave psychological and social implications. While corporations take advantage of cheap labor overseas, children are robbed of their childhoods – they work in closed rooms, often in dangerous conditions, are mistreated and malnourished, never to be able to afford the products they make.

     Child labor is a violation of human rights perpetuated by poverty and high demand for inexpensive labor. We need to spread awareness, make child labor less profitable and educate the victims, giving them a childhood and a future.


& Don't forget to check out our video about Child Labor on YouTube! Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AHPWOxEALQ or Search Keyword: Child Labor Thailand MAP.


[i]Matichon Newspaper

[ii] Matichon Newspaper

[iii] Center for ASEAN Studies

[iv] Center for ASEAN Studies

[v] Center for ASEAN Studies

[vi] Matichon Newspaper

[vii] U.S. Department of Labor

[viii] U.S. Department of Labor

[ix] U.S. Department of Labor

[x] U.S. Department of Labor

[xi] U.S. Department of Labor

[xii] Swift, Anthony

[xiii] Swift, Anthony

[xiv] Few, Robert

[xv] Perry, Alex

[xvi] Swift, Anthony

[xvii] Few, Robert

[xviii] Britannica

[xix] Pattaya Daily News

[xx] Pattaya Daily News

[xxi] Pattaya Daily News

[xxii] Pattaya Daily News

[xxiii] HumanTrafficking.org

[xxiv] Reuters, Ed Cropley

[xxv] Matichon Newspaper

[xxvi] Swift, Anthony





“Child Labour.” Free The Children. 2005. Free The Children. Oct. 2008



“Child Labor in Thailand.” Matichon Newspaper 12 June 2006.


Child Labor on the Thai-Cambodian border. 2007. UNICEF. UNICEF. Oct. 2008



Few, Robert. "Child Labor on the Thai-Cambodian Border." UNICEF Thailand. Nov. 2007. UNICEF. 16 Sept. 2008



“Fifteen Year Old Girl Forced Into Slavery.” Pattaya Daily News. 19 May 2007. Pattaya Daily News. 17 Sept. 2008



“Human-Trafficking of Children in Tak Province.” Pattaya Daily News. 29 Mar. 2007. Pattaya Daily News. 17 Sept. 2008



Perry, Alex. "Child Slavery: The Shame." Time Asia. Time Magazine. 16 Sept. 2008



Pupphavesa, Wisarn. Globalization and Social Development in Thailand. PublicationNo. 39. School of Development Economics, National Institute of

          Development. Bangkok, Thailand: Center for ASEAN Studies, July 2002. 1-5.


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          Tribune. 17 Sept. 2008



Swift, Anthony. "The Garment Worker: Sawai's Story." Global Issues for Learners. 17 Nov. 2000. 16 Sept. 2008



“Thailand.” HumanTrafficking.org. HumanTrafficking.org. 17 Sept. 2008



“Thailand.” United States Department of Labor Bureau of International Affairs. 16 Sept. 2008. US Department of Labor. 16 Sept. 2008



Wilde, Bob. “Child Labor.” EThailand.com. Ethailand.com. 17 Sept. 2008




Picture Sources


Ashore, Ronn. Children Thailand 2007:4. 2 Oct. 2007. Flickr. Flickr. Oct. 2008



Ashore, Ronn. Nunn again - Issan, Thailand. 29 Dec. 2008. Flickr. Flickr. Oct. 2008



Ashore, Ronn. #4 of 5 color photos & 1 B&W - Thailand. 27 Dec. 2006. Flickr. Flickr. Oct. 2008



Few, Robert. Begging some difficult questions. UNICEF. UNICEF. Oct. 2008



Few, Robert. Camp kids. 2006. UNICEF. UNICEF. Oct. 2008



Goodgolly. Child labor. 14 Mar. 2006. Flickr. Flickr. Oct. 2008



Ismail, Henri. Child Labour-Indonesia-Bandung01. 17 Apr. 2007. Flickr. Flickr. Oct. 2008



Ismail, Henri. Child Labour-Indonesia-Bandung04. 23 Apr. 2007. Flickr. Flickr. Oct. 2008



Swift, Anthony. Sawai's Story. New Internationalist. Oct. 2008



Vonbergen.net. Burmese refugee children. 17 May 2008. Flickr. Flickr.




Activity pictures taken by: Mila Rusafova



Music Sources


Frou Frou. Let Go.

Aerosmith. Dream On.

Roger Waters. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.

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