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Thailand’s midnight flower-sellers

Human Rights

© Alexia Kalaitzi

Working until late at night to sell flower garlands to tourists in the streets is the everyday routine for many indigenous children in Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in northern Thailand. For most of them, this is the only way to financially support their families, which have moved from mountainous villages to the big city.

‘Most of the flower-sellers in the traffic-light areas in Chiang Mai are Lahu people,’ says Saemni Sakda, director of the Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT) and himself a member of the Lisu hill tribe.

The Lahu are one of the hill tribes in Thailand. They have been living in the mountainous areas of the country and cultivating the land since pre-colonial times – so how have their children ended up working on the streets of a big city?

According to research, indigenous people – especially women and children – are more vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and child labour.

Phensiri Pansiri, manager and programme co-ordinator of Focus, a well-known foundation combating child trafficking, explains:

‘There are many factors and reasons why indigenous children are vulnerable to child trafficking and exploitation. The first one is poverty. Many indigenous families remain poor and they need money to get a better life. Secondly, some of them don’t have a Thai nationality and ID cards and consequently [don’t have] access to many state services.’

The forms of exploitation and trafficking vary, especially for children. Some of them have been forced to work in factories, others to beg in the streets; then there are the children who have been sent to work in massage parlours, where they may also be sexually exploited.

‘Children should be at home doing their homework or sleeping. Still, some of the parents ask their kids to go out and sell flowers or fruits at night, although they know that children might have an accident. Some also think tourists are more likely to buy when they see a child,’ said Pansiri, adding that some families do not have any other choice.

In many cases, indigenous people have been the victims of the Thai government’s forestry policies: large areas in the north have been named as protected zones, which has led to the resettlement or eviction of indigenous communities from different national parks. Their access to farming land has also been limited, as they have been accused of destroying the rainforest with their traditional shifting cultivation practice.

Along with the land problems, 20 per cent of the indigenous people in the north have had their Thai citizenship denied. Although they have lived there for years, almost 20,000 people do not have ID cards and struggle with state bureaucracy and corrupted government officials.

Research by UNESCO has identified the lack of legal status as the single greatest risk factor for young hill tribe people in northern Thailand, making them more vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.

Warisara Lorthawornchaisakul, a Lahu activist working for IMPECT, comes from a near-empty village, whose residents have come to Chiang Mai during the last decade to work in the construction industry. Warisara believes that this has been the result of the new land regulations and the religious conflicts stirred among the leaders of the communities.

On top of that, communities there have problems accessing education for their children. The teachers responsible for the remote areas, including indigenous villages, can only deliver classes two or three days per week, so the children can’t follow a continuous educational process.

Mew, of the Lahu hill tribe, is 22 years old.

Alexia Kalaitzi

All these difficulties have made many Lahu communities leave the mountains and move to the suburbs of Chiang Mai.

Marting Chaisuriya, director of the Lahu Christian Community, has a dormitory on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, where he hosts young Lahu people who used to live in the mountainous villages and who want to become religious leaders.

Mew is one of the Lahu who came to the city 10 years ago. He is now 22 years old and studies International Business Management in Chiang Mai. He lives in the city, but often goes to see his parents in the community in which they have resettled, half an hour away from Chiang Mai.

‘It is better in the city,’ he says, ‘because we have jobs and we can study. In the mountains, we didn’t have a high school. When we came here [Chiang Mai], children were used to selling flowers.’ Mostly, parents do not want their kids to work any more, but ‘it might happen in other Lahu villages.’

Almost all the 30 families living in this new community, in traditional bamboo huts, earn their living by selling flowers, fruits or nuts. Close to Mew’s family house, a man was cutting fruit into slices to sell.

Nearby, an old lady was making a handcraft which she hopes she can sell to the Queen of Thailand. Her son, on school holidays, was sitting inside the hut, watching TV.

‘He is too young to work. He is only 13 years old. After 15, he might work,’ his mother says.

In many cases, according to Warisara, parents prepare the flower garlands and the fruit during daytime, and in the evening, after school, they send their children to sell them in restaurants, clubs or around the traffic lights.

‘But it always depends on the family. There are families which do not send their children to work any more,’ Saemni Sakda says. ‘It is also a cultural thing here in Asia, part of the tradition: children should do something for their parents in return,’ Pansiri adds.

‘Some parents ask their kids to go out and sell flowers or fruits at night; they also think tourists are more likely to buy when they see a child’

For the Lahu, life in the city is more expensive and many of them live in poor conditions. In Mew’s village, it’s only recently that the residents have acquired access to electricity.

‘It is complicated,’ Warisara admits. ‘When they move from the community to the city, they have to rent the land to build some small huts. They pay a monthly rent, but they are also burdened by the costs of building their houses.’

The monthly rent for some land in Mew’s village is around 3,000 Thai baht ($92), which is 10 times the daily minimum wage. In another Lahu village, two women were making flower garlands in the shadows, outside their houses. They buy the flowers from the daily market, make the garlands and afterwards sell them at the night market. If they sell all the garlands, they earn 300 Thai baht ($9) per day.

Jitra, 31, a mother of two, says she likes this work because she is independent. She’s had a bad experience at her previous job, working in a noodle shop, where the employer didn’t pay her. Her children’s dream is to join the police force.

While walking around the village, Mew says only a few young Lahu can attend university, as the tuition fees for one semester can range from 7,000 to 10,000 Thai baht ($215-$307).

Phensiri Pansiri advises flexibility when it comes to child labour and its possible solutions. According to her, if the children want to help their parents by selling flowers, they can do it, but there should be some rules.

First of all, both parents and children have to be informed about the consequences of such a decision.

‘For example, the children should not work after 8pm. They should go back home to study or to sleep. It is very dangerous for them to walk in the streets at night,’ she said. Car accidents or gang violence are some of the dangers that young Lahu can face every night at work.

‘If I had a job there [in the mountain village], I would prefer to go back to the mountains,’ a Lahu woman says. This is a widely shared opinion among the Lahu who have moved to Chiang Mai. For the majority, it’s their first time living in the city and working as employees, seeking ways to build a better life for themselves and their families.


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