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December 21, 2012

Thai Schools for Migrants Aim to Prevent Child Labor

by Daniel Schearf

Thailand's seafood industry is expressing concern about child labor practices that, if not improved, could see exports to the United States restricted.  The Thai government established schools for children of migrant laborers, most from Burma, to provide an alternative to child labor.  But too many children are still working.

9-year-old Nu Nu Wai would like to go to school full time and become a painter. 

But, as a child of migrant workers from Burma her parents cannot make enough money so she only attends 10 days a month. 

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She spends the rest of her time peeling shrimp in a factory that employs five other children.

Her teacher, Than Than Win says she works there with her parents up to 13 hours per day.

"Parents who have financial problems cannot send their children to school regularly.  Sometimes, they ask their children to work and help in their work," she said.

Billions in exports

Samutsakhon is Thailand's seafood processing heartland and about a third of exports, worth over a billion dollars per year, go to the United States.

But a review next year of its record on trafficking in persons, including forced and child labor, could result in restrictions.

Suwatanachai Visetcharoen is manager of Talay Thai, Thailand's largest seafood wholesaler. 

He says U.S. limits on Thai imports would have a huge impact because it is their largest single export market.

"It would impact the seller and then the entire country's economy.  Some factories may have to close.  It would have a great impact," he said.

Unfair advantage

Activists say government efforts have stamped out blatant labor abuses at many large factories, but smaller ones still use undocumented children because they are cheap and not likely to go to authorities.

The Labor Rights Promotion Network says less than a third of Samutsakhon's 8,000 children of migrants go to school.

Director Sompong Srakaew says without government sponsored schools like this the problem would be worse.

"[Migrant] children who accompany their parents, if they are not supported to be able to go to school, they cannot develop themselves.  They will have no life skills and may cause social problems in the future.  Thailand is also now under close watch about child labor."

Vulnerable children, migrants

Head of Wat Sri Suttharam School Pisarn Nuntasae says about a quarter of the school's 300 migrant students are illegal and most who enroll end up dropping out to go to work.

He says about 20 percent end up returning to their home countries to try to become documented through a nationality verification process, but most do not return.

"Teachers followed up but were informed that they went back to their home [country] or other provinces.  The students did not come back into the school system again.  Only 5 perecent came back after nationality verification," he said.

Activists say the nationality verification program, while well intentioned, is cumbersome, too expensive, and opens migrants and their children to abuse.

Principal Pisarn says if the children were simply made legal they would not have to leave, could attend class more, and better avoid exploitation.