Estimates on the number of child workers in Thailand vary greatly. The International Labor Organization puts the number at four million, with 600,000 between the ages of 13 and 14.1 Non-governmental organizations put the number higher. Bangkok's Human Resources Institute maintains that at least five million Thai children, some as young as seven years of age, work.2
There are no reliable statistics on child labor in export industries in Thailand. The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 observes, "there are no export industries in which child labor is significant."3 However, literature reviews and site visits suggest that child labor does indeed exist in the export industries, including garments, gems, leather bags, shrimp and seafood processing, and wood and rattan furniture.
II. Child Labor in Export Industries
Children produce goods for both the domestic and export markets, usually in subcontracted enterprises rather than in large factories. One source maintains that there are at least 5,000 unregulated "sweatshop" factories in Thailand.4 Sanphasit Koomprahant, a noted child labor activist, estimates that up to 1.4 million children work in Bangkok's underground manufacturing economy, mostly in the unlicensed manufacturing sector.5 According to Koomprahant, many of these factories are illegal and lock their doors to outsiders.6
The Royal Thai Embassy, in written testimony to the U.S. Department of Labor, observed that many child workers have entered the labor market due to the rapid expansion of business and industries. The Government states:
So-called "employment agencies" or "headhunters" frequently act as middlemen between poor parents and factory owners in Bangkok. These middlemen offer cash up-front to the parents and promise job opportunities for the children.
In 1993, Thailand exported over $800 million worth of garments to the United States.8 There are widespread reports of children working in the garment industry of Thailand, but no comprehensive studies documenting the nature and extent of their involvement. Although there is probably little child labor in the large garment factories, there is reportedly significant child labor employed by smaller unregulated subcontractors.
According to an article in the Vancouver Sun, many children find sweatshop work in the garment industry, working long hours seven days a week for pitifully low wages.9 A 1987 Cox newspaper article reported that the highest paid child worker found by Cox reporters, who conducted a survey of child workers, was a 14 year-old in Bangkok running a sewing machine at a skirt factory for 15 hours a day seven days a week, earning approximately $70 per month at piece work rates.10
According to Child Workers in Asia, child labor is especially common in small garment enterprises in the Pratunam district in Bangkok.11 According to another non-governmental organization, the Foundation for Child Development, children, mostly girls, work 12-hour days in shops where they earn as little as 5 cents for sewing 100 buttons.12
In 1992 Thailand exported $170 million worth of gems to the United States.13 In Thailand's gem industry, children work both in "modern" factories in urban centers and in smaller villages in subcontracting arrangements. In villages in the Khon Khaen area, a U.S. Department of Labor official observed about eight children working, with one saying she was 13 years old.14 These children work 12 hours per day, six days a week, polishing gems, and reportedly receive about $2 per day. In recent years, the gem polishing industry of Khon Khaen has declined, as operations have reportedly moved to China where wages are even cheaper.15
In Bangkok, Chaing Mai, and other urban centers, thousands of children are recruited from northeastern Thailand to polish gems in factories called "shop houses". After training, children allegedly receive 30 to 40 baht per week (approximately $1.36 to $1.81), including lunch.16
During a visit a Chaing Mai gem shop on May 8, 1994, a U.S. Department of Labor official was told that young teenagers do not receive compensation during their training period. The jewelry showroom guide told the official that employees were hired at 13 years of age and then trained for one to two months.
Thailand also exports leather hand bags to the United States.17 In 1992, Child Workers in Asia (CWA) reported that children in the leather bag industry work under poor and cramped conditions.18 They work from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. with no overtime, are given only one one-hour break per day, and earn about 500 baht or $20 per month.19 CWA claimed children face major hazards in the industry working with glue and other solvents as well allergic reactions from handling leather. One child reported that children are given amphetamines to keep up their strength. CWA also alleged that a Bangkok leather company, well-known winner of four "Exporter of the Year" awards since 1987, employed more than 200 children to produce 50,000 leather bags a month. In this factory, children were paid $1 a day for 13 hours of work and were given 2 days per month off.20 Cox Newspapers reported that, in February 1987, one suburban Bangkok "shophouse" that made leather purses caught fire, killing 19 people including 3 children.21 The workers died in the factory because they were trapped behind locked doors.
Shrimp and Seafood Processing
In 1992, the United States imported nearly $1 billion worth of fish and crustaceans from Thailand, shipped primarily from the Samut Sakhon area.22 Professor George Kent, from the University of Hawaii, personally observed children working in shrimp peeling sheds and on board fishing vessels in Thailand.23 The children reportedly peel, clean, and sort the fish. Employers allegedly work through "headhunters" who offer loans to parents for their children.24 The children work off the parents' debts in the factories, where they reportedly are locked inside and sometimes beaten. These children are thus made officially "invisible" through the subcontracting arrangements between their parents and the employers. Some children are heard to have returned home with missing fingers and diseased skin.
Rattan and Wood Furniture
Child labor also exists in the Thai furniture industry, especially in the rattan factories. The United States imports rattan, wicker, straw, cane, palm and buri furniture from Thailand.25 In 1987, Cox Newspaper reporters found a 13 year-old boy in a furniture factory making rattan furniture who earned $16 per month for working 85-hour weeks.26
Children also work in Thailand's wood furniture industry.27 The 1986 National Youth Bureau study found a 13 year-old in a furniture factory next to the Mandarin Hotel in Bangkok, as well as children assembling wood furniture. More research is needed on this industry.
III. Laws of Thailand
A. National Child Labor Laws
The legal minimum working age in Thailand is 13. Children between the ages of 13 and 15 are permitted to perform "light work".28 Employment of children at night between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. is prohibited. The Thai government announced plans to increase the minimum age for employment to 14 years by 1996 and to 15 years by 2001.29
The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare has proposed to decrease the number of legal working hours for child workers ages 13 to 15 in industrial and commercial work to six hours per day, or 36 hours per week, and increase the penalty for employer violation to a maximum 12 months imprisonment and 200,000 baht fine (approximately $9,000).30
According to the Royal Thai Embassy, the Thai Department of Labor Protection and Welfare inspected 31,282 enterprises between October 1, 1992 and February 28, 1994.31 As a result, 126 employers were prosecuted for unfair practices and exploitation of child labor, and 3 employers were imprisoned. Total fines amounted to 808,600 bahts (approximately $36,522).32 According to the Embassy, 231 child workers received a total of 607,494 bahts (approximately $27,438) in wages owed.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, an expert on child labor, observed that although governmental policy designed to help children is "clear enough," implementation of the laws is weak.33 Muntarbhorn explains that poor enforcement of child labor laws is due in part to "the pervasive underworld which profiteers from the trade and which colludes with law enforcement personnel."34 The ILO, in its Report of the Committee of Experts, confirmed that there is a need to counter police corruption.35
In Thailand, the labor inspectorate suffers from understaffing and corruption.36 For example, in one industrial area, the ILO Direct Contacts Mission was informed that there were only 10 inspectors for 6,000 to 7,000 factories.37 Enforcement is also difficult as factories employ children well beyond normal hours and, under Thai criminal law, inspectors require a special warrant to enter factories during those hours. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that factory doors are usually locked to outsiders. Moreover, work condition laws only cover factories employing at least 20 persons; small factories or subcontracting systems which often use child labor are excluded.38
B. Education Laws
UNICEF reports that Thailand has increased access to basic education.39 The Royal Thai Embassy testified that about 800,000 children complete their compulsory education through Grade 6 every year.40 Professor Myron Weiner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology notes that virtually all children attend primary school in Thailand.41 In addition, the government plans to increase compulsory education from six to nine years and has initiated a teacher training and school construction program in order to reach this goal.
Even though Thai law requires six years of education, many children reported do not spend that many years in the classroom due to financial pressures.42 The drop-out rate ranges as high as 50 percent in some of Thailand's poorest regions. Only about 30 percent of eligible Thai children enter high school. UNICEF estimates that 15 percent of the students drop out before completing primary school, the majority of drop-outs being from ethnic minorities and the poor.43
C. International Conventions
Thailand is a party to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thailand has not ratified ILO Convention No. 138 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment or ILO Convention No. 59 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in Industry.44
IV. Programs and Efforts To Address Child Labor
The stated policy of the Thai government is to eliminate child labor by setting up a mass media campaign on child labor, registering child laborers, cooperating with hospitals to report cases of tortured child workers, establishing 36 sub-local offices of labor protection and welfare, increasing the number of labor inspectors, and organizing training courses for labor inspectors.45 In addition, the Ministry of the Interior has instructed officials to take employers accused of violating child labor laws to the courts immediately without prior warning.46 According to the Thai Embassy, the government has established operation centers in 76 provinces to address unfair labor practices against children, disseminate literature, and organize meetings.47 The Administration Committee of the Thai Parliament has passed an amendment to the Penal Code which increases the penalties for acts which harm or endanger child laborers or cause their death. Penalties include a prison term of 15 to 20 years, life imprisonment, or capital punishment.48
In 1992, after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Thai government, the International Labor Organization officially launched a national action program under the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC).49 IPEC is working with the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare to improve collection and dissemination of information on child labor, aimed especially at small scale factories in Thonburi district of Bangkok. IPEC has also worked with various non-governmental agencies including Foundation for the Better Life of Children (children in construction), Esan Child Labor Project (children in garment production and gem cutting), Samuthprakarn Child Labor Project (children in leather factories), Friends of Children Group, and ATD Fourth World.50
UNICEF is addressing child labor under the program for Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances (CEDC) and will focus on child prostitution and economically exploited and abused children in Thailand.51 This program will include advocacy and social mobilization, as well as training programs for government officials and non-governmental organizations to prevent and detect child prostitution. In addition, the Government of Thailand, UNICEF, and the International Labor Organization intend to work together to encourage parents to send their children to school.52
Some non-governmental organizations are also seeking to address the issue of child labor. Just recently, a Non-Governmental Organization Coordination Committee on Child Labor (NGO-COM) was established to increase co-operation, develop common strategies, and pressure the Thai government to enforce child labor laws.53 Child Workers in Asia is an important focal point for exchanging information and sharing work experiences. As part of this work, the CWA produces a quarterly newsletter which compiles and publishes the latest information from a wide range of non-governmental organizations in Asia. The Child Labor Project (formerly known as the Center for Concern for Child Labor), has established a Foundation for Child Development to study child labor problems and organize various activities for working children, which include the child labor club, mobile libraries, vocational training, and medical examinations. The Foundation for Children's Rights, the Center for the Protection of Children's Rights, and the Foundation for Better Life of Children have also sponsored various programs including a model school, a child care and youth center, and a mid-day meal program. Other non-governmental organizations working on child labor include Friend of Children and Bangkok's Human Resources Institute.
1 Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations: General Report and Observations Concerning Particular Countries (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 81st session, 1994) 135 [hereinafter 1994 Report of the Committee of Experts]. UNICEF reports that a 1986 government survey on the labor force found that 1.05 million children aged 11 to 14 years were employed, out of which 124,000 were between 11 and 12 years old. "Thai Children at Work," The Situation Analysis for Women and Children (New York: UNICEF, 1989) 27 [on file].
2 Robin Wright, "World View: The Littlest Victims of Global Progress," Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1994, 1 [hereinafter Wright]. The 1993 ICFTU-APRO report estimated that there are five million working children in Thailand. ICFTU-APRO Sub-Regional Seminars on Child Labor (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions - Asian and Pacific Regional Organization, October 1993) Table 1.
3 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 (U.S. Department of State: February 1994) 749 [hereinafter Country Reports].
4 Judith Ennew and Brian Milne, The Next Generation (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990) 174 [hereinafter Ennew and Milne].
5 "Little Hands Grasp for Prosperity," Child Workers in Asia, vol. 9, no. 3 (July-September 1993) 26.
6 "Interview with Sanpasit Khumprapan," Child Workers in Asia, vol. 8, no. 4, vol. 9, no. 1, (October-December 1992 and January-March 1993) 9.
7 International Child Labor Hearing, U.S. Department of Labor (April 12, 1994) (Statement of the Royal Embassy of Thailand) [hereinafter Testimony of Thai Embassy].
8 Search of Piers Imports Database, Journal of Commerce, 1994. See also U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Office of Textile and Apparel, Major Shippers Report (June 11, 1994).
9 "Child Labor," The Vancouver Sun, July 13, 1992, A12.
10 Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, "Stolen Childhood: Global Report on the Exploitation of Children," in Cox Newspapers (June 21-26, 1987) 12 [hereinafter Albright and Kunstel].
11 "Little Hands Grasp for Prosperity," International Herald Tribune, July 27, 1993, reprinted in Child Workers in Asia, vol. 9, no. 3 (July-September 1993) 26.
12 Wright at 1.
13 U.S. Merchandise Trade: Exports and General Imports by Country (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1993) A-417.
14 Visit by Department of Labor official to Khon Khaen, May 8, 1994.
15 During a visit to the gem polishing factories of the Khon Khaen area on May 8, 1994, a Department of Labor official was informed that there was a significant local industry in polishing cubic zirconia - a diamond replacement. Much of this industry now has reportedly moved to China. The Labor official found three types of work situations in the gem industry: (1) a large factory which used to employ several hundred polishers, but is no longer operating; (2) a "neighborhood" factory, which includes small sheds, employing children; and (3) subcontracted work to families, where children also polish gems.
16 Visit by Department of Labor official to Chiang Mai on May 8, 1994.
17 Search of Piers Imports Database, Journal of Commerce 1994 (June 1994).
18 "Rights of Child Workers," Child Workers in Asia, vol. 8, no. 1/2 (January-June 1992) 8-9.
19 "Child Labor Through Their Eyes," Worker Rights News, International Labor Rights and Education Fund (Summer 1992) 3.
20 David Todd, "Thais Shocked By Story of Worker-Prisoners," The Vancouver Sun, July 6, 1992, A8.
21 Albright and Kunstel at 11.
22 U.S. Merchandise: Exports and General Imports by Country (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1993) A-415. Search of Piers Imports database, Journal of Commerce 1994 (June 1994).
23 Letter from Professor George Kent to the International Child Labor Study (February 28, 1994).
24 One source maintained that a family received 5,000-6,000 baht.
25 Search of Piers Imports Database, Journal of Commerce 1994.
26 Albright and Kunstel at 12.
27 An official of the U.S. Department of Labor visited wood furniture factories in the Chiang Mai area on May 8, 1994 where a showroom guide stated that employees were hired when they were 13 years old.
28 Country Reports at 748.
30 Testimony of the Thai Embassy. See also Statement of the Government of Thailand to the GSP Subcommittee of the Trade Policy Staff Committee (November 10, 1993) 20 [on file]. See also American Embassy-Bangkok unclassified letter, July 7, 1994 [on file].
31 Testimony of the Thai Embassy.
32 Id. Repeated requests by a U.S. Department of Labor official to the Thai Department of Labor Protection and Welfare for the list of the 126 employers who were reportedly prosecuted went unanswered. In addition, in a discussion with the Department of Labor official, the Thai Ministry said that none of the 126 employers were prosecuted for hiring underage child labor.
33 Vitit Muntarbhorn, Law and State: Human Rights Challenge in Thailand (Oxford: Oxford University, 1993) 24-25.
35 1994 Report of the Committee of Experts at 140.
36 Id. at 136-137.
37 Id. at 136.
38 Interview with Chulalongkorn University Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn by Department of Labor official (May 1994).
39 Country Program Recommendation-Thailand (Geneva: UNICEF, February 11, 1994) U.N. Doc. E/ICEF/1994/P/L.13, 1994 at 3.
40 Testimony of Thai Embassy.
41 International Child Labor Hearing, U.S. Department of Labor (April 12, 1994) (Statement of Professor Myron Weiner, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
42 "Little Hands Grasp Prosperity," International Herald Tribune, July 27, 1993, reprinted in Child Workers in Asia, vol. 9, no. 3 (July-September 1993) 26.
43 Country Program Recommendation-Thailand (Geneva: UNICEF, February 11, 1994) U.N. Doc. E/ICEF/1994/P/L.13 (1994).
44 List of Ratifications by Convention and by Country (as at December 1992) (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1993).
45 See Testimony of Thai Embassy for the list of measures.
46 Statement of the Government of Thailand to the GSP Subcommittee of the Trade Policy Staff Committee (November 10, 1993) 20 [on file].
47 See Testimony of Thai Embassy for detailed list on protection and prevention measures outlined by the government.
49 ILO-IPEC Co-Operation Between The Government of Thailand and the ILO to Deal With the Problem of Child Labor (unpublished manuscript, n.d.) [on file].
50 National Program, IPEC Thailand 1992-1993 (International Labor Organization, n.d.) [on file].
51 Country Program Recommendation-Thailand (Geneva: UNICEF, February 11, 1994) U.N. Doc. E/ICEF/1994/P/L.13.
53 Child Workers in Asia, vol. 9, no. 3 (July-September 1993) 6.