01 November 2007

Child labour on the Thai-Cambodian border

A young Cambodian girl queued up at the gate early morning waiting to cross the border.© UNICEF-Thailand/2007/Athit Perawongmetha

Story by Robert Few

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand  – As the sun rises over the Thai-Cambodian border town of Aranyaprathet, it reveals a straggling line of desperate people queuing to cross from Cambodia into Thailand. Among them are thousands of children coming into Thailand to work as child labourers in Aranyaprathet’s Rong Glua Market.

Ragged, unwashed and ill-fed, they are fleeing abject poverty on the other side of the border to work for a pittance in the huge market’s sprawling stalls and hangars. Around 10,000 people are employed here every day until 8 p.m., when the border closes and most of them, including the children, stream back into Cambodia.
Many of the jobs carried out by children in the market are those that few others are willing to do.

In one corner, children sit in circles. From a huge bucket of dark green frogs a Cambodian woman takes one and expertly slices it down the back. She passes it to a girl of six or seven years who deftly twists it inside out, removing the skin. The girl, whose hands and feet run with blood and entrails, tosses the now pink and red frog onto a pile of squirming frog-shaped creatures who have not yet realized they are dead.

The skin is passed to another young child, who fixes it onto wooden sticks, ready to be dried and fried and sold as a delicacy. For this grisly task, the team receives two baht a kilo.

Children work for low wages in unpleasant jobs at Rong Glua Market. © UNICEF-Thailand/2007/Athit Perawongmetha
In another corner, children rip the wings from half-drowned locusts. They get four baht a kilo. In another, they gut fish. In another, they collect rubbish. In yet another, they stitch shoes. The one thing none of them does is go to school.

“How can I go to school?” asks one child of 12 years, his hands full of locust wings. “My mother is sick; my father is old; I have to support them. We don’t like this work but we have to get money.”

This is the harsh reality being addressed by the UNICEF/World Vision-supported drop-in centre and outreach service for children working in the market and on the border.

They provide daily breakfasts and lunches and informal classes on Thai, Cambodian and math for any street children who come by.

They also have a number of child rights volunteers – adults and young people –who provide the drop-in centre’s eyes and ears in the marketplace, looking out for signs of abuse and taking action where necessary.

“We have about 30-40 children visiting the center every day,” said Chittra Plongthong, a World Vision staff at the drop-in center. “Most of them come for food and recreation activities. But often we have children who are hit or physically abused by their employers and we provide basic medical treatment for them ”

In just one example, a boy was caught stealing from a food stall. The owner beat him senseless and locked him up in his shop. A child rights volunteer went to speak to the owner of the stall, who claimed he had not beaten any child – had not even seen one. So the volunteers came back with the police, who forced the man to open up his shop. The boy was locked inside, bruised and bleeding. He had to spend the night in hospital.

As well as cases like this, the volunteers also take children who have been bitten by rabid dogs or hit by cars to the hospital. They arrange for
vaccinations and medical treatment for children who are ill. They investigate allegations of child abuse or complaints against children and make sure they are dealt with fairly and sensitively by the legal system.

For children who cannot come to the center, the staffs go out visiting them in the market twice a day to provide similar service at the market. The outreach staff all speak Cambodian. They have to because almost all of the children that work in the market are from across the border. Even the frogs and the locusts are Cambodian, imported along with the children who will spend all day killing them.

Foreign children away from their own country are always more vulnerable to exploitation, and the Cambodian children in Rong Glua Market are no exception. They have little access to services like police protection and basic healthcare, and few legal rights, said Sirirath Chunnasart, UNICEF's child protection officer.

“We have to advocate more about chid rights and child protection issues" said Sirirath “Children exploitation remains a major problem in the market and constant vigilance is necessary because the population of the market changes all the time,”

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