Hundred Dollar Slaves

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 164 - October 1986

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Photo: Claude Sauvageot
Hundred dollar slaves
The dry season in Thailand becomes open season for buying
and selling children. Alan Whittaker looks at the child labourers
who have rights neither as children nor as workers.

In Thailand, it's not bogeymen that children need to watch out for: it's fisherwomen. 'Fisherwoman' is the Thai euphemism for child-catcher, and fisherwomen work with 'employment' agencies clustered around Bangkok's main railway station. They are busiest during January, February and March - the dry season in Thailand, when trainloads of children aged eight or even younger arrive in the middle of the night from the provinces, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by other fisherwomen who seek their goods at source.

Women make the best catchers, for whom should a tired, bewildered young child trust but a gently smiling matron? And these fisherwomen have turned Bangkok into the world's open market in the buying and selling of children - perhaps 500 a week during the season.

The price of these young slaves usually hovers between $100 and $150, though it may be as little as $75. Receipts are issued on request and the living property is passed over from fisherwoman to buyer - theoretically to work for a year. But no one asks for the child back and no one checks on its welfare. The child is bought for life . . . or until it is no longer required.

Thailand is an ancient society but a young nation: nearly half the country is under 15 and at least a quarter of its workforce is made up of children aged 10 to 14. It is a leading rice exporter, yet over 50 per cent of rural children under five suffer from maInutrition: in 1981, 55,000 of them starved to death. When the Bangkok fisher-women go out to the countryside, they go to the north-east where the people are poorest. Here, parents are lucky if they earn $65 a year. Even in relatively good times, peasant families must eke out a living by hunting for food in the forest.

When a fisherwoman arrives in a remote north-eastern village she seems to offer an escape from poverty. Bangkok is where the future is, she suggests; children don't need an education, they should be working - and then she hands over the cash, about $18. This is the usual advance salary for two months' work and it is a huge sum when compared with a villager's yearly income.1 Sometimes the sold children of Thailand do return home. Samroeng was one of them. Two years ago, on his way home, he collapsed in a village market; he was dead on arrival at Sum City Hospital. He was seventeen.

He had been sold to a Bangkok sweatshop owned by a woman, Treenart Pittayajamras. After six months of working 15 hours a day, sitting all the time on the floor, Samroeng developed acute chest pains, chronic nausea and swollen legs.

The sweatshop made fluorescent lights and its 20-odd workforce of children had to bite through the electric flex with their teeth. They were regularly beaten. When Samroeng was sent back home alone, by bus, he could no longer walk properly.

Two other village children who had worked in the same sweatshop were discovered later; they too were unable to walk. The villagers said that six more children had managed to get messages home. They complained of bad health but, as the salaries advanced by Mrs Treenart could not be repaid, there was nothing the parents could do.

There may be as many as 5,000,000 children exploited in Thailand and at least 10,000 of them have been abandoned on the streets of Bangkok, protected by neither family nor employer. The Children's Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok dealt with 60 cases of child rape during the last 12 months: the rapists included the children's employers. The Centre deals with one case of 'torture' (their word) on average each month. Burning, cutting and scalding children by pimps and employers are commonplace.

These children become premature adults, fending for themselves. Some become slum dwellers - one in ten Bangkok residents lives in slums - and others live on and around municipal rubbish dumps. They scavenge for a pittance and even quite young children take to gambling, drugs and drink.

But the world's largest juvenile workforce is in India - 44,000,000 according to the Indian Ministry of Labour. Of these millions, 44,000 work in the tea gardens of Assam. And here too the degree of alcoholconsumption indicates the magnitude of the family's disruption. Half the child work-force gets drunk on the locally fermented rice liquor, and 90 per cent of the adults are regular drinkers - even the mothers, a sign of trauma within a Hindu society.

Plantation workers live in conditions more commonly associated with the nineteenth century than with today. Tea-pickers are slaves, in all but name. Theoretically free, in reality they are shackled to their work by low wages, by having to buy food at prices fixed by the plantation owners, and by isolation.

Plantations are remote and public transport non-existent. Tea-pickers are marooned. They live where they work, in shacks without adequate cooking facilities, running water or lavatories - and near open sewers where mosquitoes breed. The nearest village is literally miles away and psychologically even further. Plantation work tends to be kept in the family, passed on from adults to children; those in work support those too old to labour. There are, of course, no pension or social security schemes. Adult wages, at about 75 cents a day, are low even by local standards. Children are paid a pitiful 50 - 60 cents for a ten-hour day.2

Though all plantation workers are exploited, the children are doubly cheated. They do an adult's job from a very early age and their childhood never has a chance to blossom. They work especially hard during harvest time because their soft, nimble hands do not bruise the leaves - and a top-quality end product is demanded by India's two biggest customers, the UK and the USSR3

Girls, as 12-year-old Lakshmi knows, have the hardest time of all. By four am she is helping her mother prepare breakfast and the tea-picking starts at six am. During the harvest season Lakshmi may work ten hours a day, six days a week.

After tea-picking all day she returns to her other, unrecognised job in the bamboo shack she knows as home. She collects water from the communal tap, washes the family's cheap cotton clothes and washes up after the evening meal. Lakshmi's diet is monotonous and nutritionally inadequate: rice with lentils or a few vegetables for supper, a chapati and milkless tea for both breakfast and lunch.

In 1978, according to Britain's World Development Movement, the Brooke Bond tea company's director for Indian operations admitted that one in five children on his Doom Dooma estate suffered from malnutrition. In 1986, child tea-pickers have to cope with the additional hazard of the increased use of agro-chemicals. They are, of course, given no protective clothing, as for health facilities, that's what rich people have.

After working generation after generation - underfed, underpaid and out of sight - plantation workers have become pro-rammed to accept their condition. They are but vaguely aware of a better life outside their own enclosed society. But escape is unthinkable; plantations have become their only means of survival, a very frayed security blanket.

The sad paradox at the heart of child labour is that it perpetuates poverty because it is a cheaper alternative to already cheap adult labour. A child's wage, to an individual family, often means the difference between eating and not eating. But it is no solution in the long term. A child at work means an adult out of work - and that means a smaller income. Child labour prevents the growth of organised trade unionism and maintains a Victorian-type boss's capitalism. It stunts dignity and perpetuates powerlessness.

So why is it allowed to continue? One reason is that child labour cannot simply be 'legislated out' at a stroke: the families that now depend on their children's wages would go under. What is needed is pressure to pay the parents adequately so that they are no longer forced into colluding with a mercantile system that runs on children's sweat. India's tea exports, for example, are worth $330 million annually. But the families who add the value of their lives to the price on the packet see none of these profits.

International trade comes into the act too - those who advocate 'free trade' need to remember that the price of a free market system is paid by poor countries, when world commodity prices collapse. Even less money trickles down a clogged pipe to the children at the end of the line.

Another prop maintaining child labour is the perception of children as adults' possessions. Children cannot be sold unless they are owned - and a constant trickle of information into the offices of the AntiSlavery Society indicates that children are bought and sold all over the world. During the last year, numbers of children reportedly bought in impoverished regions of Yugoslavia were being held in camps outside Rome - in training as thieves and beggars.

And in Sumanta Banerjee's book on child labour in Thailand, a Thai monk recalls how he was handed over like a parcel as a Iuksit, a disciple-son: 'To give one of your children away to be adopted by strangers had been a common practice of peasants who had a large brood of youngsters, particularly in the years of drought In my case, being given to a monk could be seen as a pious deed bringing good fortune to the parents, if not in this life, in the next.'

So society at large may even revere, rather than challenge, parents who treat their children as objects. Parents remain the child's first and best line of defence: they must take on that responsibility. For if parents refuse to respect their children's humanity, who will?

Alan Whittaker is press officer for the Anti-Slavery Society - though the views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the society.

Child Labour in Thailand, Report no. 4. AntiSlavery Society, UK.
Anti-Slavery Report to UN Working Group on Slavery, 1984.
Anti-SlaveryReportonAssamese Tea-pickers, by Sumanta Bsnerjee (unpublished).

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If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites
one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: You describe Lakshmi's daily life in intimate detail, as though you knew her. But does she even exist, or did you invent her? Isn't she just a journalistic trick to stir up our emotions?

Whittaker: Lakshmi could have been invented but she wasn't. She's alive and as well as can be expected and living - existing rather - in Assam. Her tragedy is that she could so easily have been invented: there is absolutely nothing special about her situation. In fact, she is so typical that she has become almost invisible to people outside her family - except as a pair of hands to employers or as a statistic to researchers and bureaucrats.

If what I wrote about her did stir up emotions then I'm glad, particularly if one emotion was anger. Nothing plays a greater part in bringing about change than anger. Of course, anger must be channelled, but without it the status quo remains supreme. No child should be institutionally invisible; if a picture is worth a thousand words then perhaps a pen-sketch is worth a thousand statistics.


Editor: Why do you refer to a child as an 'it'? Are you, too, unconsciously seeing children as objects rather then people?

Whittaker: A child is an 'it' for clarity's sake. 'He-or-she' or 's/he' are contemporary abominations that do nothing except clutter up the page and help to debase the language. 'Child' is grammatically neuter and to use the masculine to denote both sexes is no longer common usage - except in French and other languages beyond the pale. The question itself displays a 'standard English' bias. Some dialects always refer to a child as 'it'.


Editor: You refer to a 'Victorian-type boss's capitalism'. Why bring the Victorians in? Is it to distance and disguise a dislike you have of capitalism in general?

Whittaker: It would take a complete edition of NI to discuss the virtues and defects of capitalism. However, it is incontrovertible that the abuse of the profit motive least to the abuse of the individual. In my view, today's tea-pickers are modern slaves. (please, no facile comments about us all being wage slaves.)

Plantation workers, both children and adults, are unquestionably victims of the sort of attitudes that infuse such angry masterpieces as Dickens's Hard Times and Olivier Twist - Victorian novels that were revolutionary in their effects. Tea-pickers can be sacked without notice; their home is somebody else's instantly returnable shack; they are totally without security. What could be more redolent of Victorian commercial values? In the tea gardens, capital is still the same sort of unconstitutional king that it once was in cotton and coal. 'Victorian-type bosses' capitalism is a shorthand way of making comparisons with past history - which most Westerners think of as being just that. But for the majority of Third World workers, and certainly for Lakshmi and her kin, the past is today.

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