11 July 2024

Non-governmental organizations warn that Thailand will not achieve its goal of ending child labor by 2025 unless its efforts include migrant children.

“An estimated 100,000 child migrants have arrived in Thailand since late last year alone. But our country has no measures to take care of them,” said Surapong Kongchantuk, president of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, which promotes and protects human rights in Thailand. Surapong was speaking ahead of the World Day against Child Labor, which is marked on June 12.

While Thai law mandates that all children have the right to 15 years of free education, migrant children are unable to enter school in Thailand unless given special permission by the authorities, he said.

That leaves migrant kids at risk of exploitation.

“If children don’t go to school, they go into the labour market,” he said.

Child labour situation

According to official figures, the number of children forced into the worst forms of labour in Thailand fell to just 948 in 2022.

That was a dramatic fall from 3,222 and 3,188 in the previous two years.

The worst forms of child labour include jobs in slave-like conditions, prostitution and pornography, other illegal activities including drug peddling, and jobs that threaten children’s health or moral development.

Statistics at Thailand’s Department of Labor Protection and Welfare show that of the 948 children engaged in the worst child labour in 2022, 860 were involved in the narcotics trade, 76 in prostitution, and 12 in jobs with health and moral risks. These figures were based on children aged between 15 and 17.

The drug trade has been responsible for over 90% of children employed in the worst forms of labour since at least 2019.

The US Department of Labour says Thailand has made moderate advances in efforts to protect children from the worst forms of labour.

In 2022, the Thai government amended the Anti-Money Laundering Act so assets seized from human trafficking offenders could be used as financial remedies for survivors of trafficking, including children who are sexually exploited.

It also established the Child Sexual Exploitation Crime Centre to facilitate investigations of offences related to child pornography.

However, the US Department of Labour points out that Thailand has not yet met the international minimum working age standard because Thai law does not grant protection to children working outside formal employment.

It also notes a lack of research and data on the prevalence of child labour in high-risk sectors such as agriculture, garment manufacturing, domestic work, and construction.

Legal complications

While the last government mandated 15 years of free education and a ban on school-age children from entering the labour market, the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare permits children between the ages of 15 and 17 to work.

However, their jobs must be safe and done within a proper environment. For example, employers must not let children do welding work.

Neither can they be hired to handle tasks that involve abnormal levels of heat, cold, vibration, noise, or lighting. The department also bans the use of children at slaughterhouses and entertainment venues.

Moreover, employers are not allowed to require children to work at night between 10pm and 6am, unless they receive special approval from the department’s director-general.

“If children do remain in school for 15 years, they should only start working at around the age of 18,” Surapong commented.

As such, Thailand should amend laws so there is no place for child labour, he said. Asked about children who need to earn a living, Surapong said that special approval could be granted if they really needed to work.

Concerns about children refugees

Surapong is especially worried about migrant children who flee conflict or other problems in neighbouring countries.

These young migrants, he said, are unable to enter refugee camps that are already at capacity.

“Hence, many are forced into seeking work. Some have already moved from border provinces to Samut Sakhon and Bangkok,” he said.

He is worried about their welfare, pointing out that because they entered illegally, they have to work illegally too.

This increases the likelihood of them being exploited by illegal sectors such as the sex trade and extorted by corrupt officials.

“They are at risk of human trafficking or crimes,” Surapong pointed out.

Adisorn Kerdmongkol of the Migrant Working Group echoed those fears, pointing to evidence that migrant kids are being used in Thailand’s agricultural sector.

“We found that employers are violating the rights of migrant farmhands’ children,” he said.

Many Thai farms are exploiting children under the age of 15, according to research conducted by his group.

These children can face health risks from tasks that involve handling agricultural chemicals – mainly in the form of pesticides and herbicides.

“It can be dangerous,” he said.

Children in the fisheries industry?

Adisorn also opposed an ongoing push to amend laws to allow children to work as interns in the fishing industry.

The current ban on kids working in fisheries is a good thing, he said.

“But that may change if the new law is passed.”

National Fisheries Association’s president Mongkhon Charoensukkana has called for awareness and understanding of the Thai fishing industry’s culture and context.

“Many children of fishermen started steering fishing trawlers from the age of 14 or 15,” he said. “That’s their way of life.”

Mongkhon explained that the new law, if passed, would only apply to the children of fishermen.

He said the draft law had been prepared to ensure fishermen’s families can continue their way of life by passing the skills of their livelihood on to the next generation.

“If we strictly comply with international conventions on labour, their way of life and livelihoods will fall apart,” Mongkhon said.

What is the govt’s plan?

Labour Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn points out that Thailand is required to meet the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes item 8.7 – to take “immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk