21 January 2013

A Chance for Change: young people from disadvantaged communities learn a trade

At a university dormitory in Bangkok, 21 young people from disadvantaged communities line up to pull the name of a top hotel out of a bag. Behind them, teams of hotel staff in uniforms wait to meet their new apprentices. For 20-year-old Daojai Saetor, a cabbage farmer from a Mon hill tribe village in Petchaburi province, it’s an exciting moment. She reaches in and pulls out a piece of paper saying ‘JW Marriot’ and her new life begins.

Although quiet and shy, Daojai is talkative once she gets going. She dresses simply and has a simple haircut, unlike the more fashion-conscious girls from urban areas. “This is only my second time to Bangkok,” she said. “I arrived yesterday by bus with my friend. I’m very excited to be here. I wanted to go to university but my parents couldn’t afford to send me. I’ll need to pay my own way. Working in a hotel will help me do that.”

The Youth Career Development Programme (YCDP) has been running since the mid-1990s. It was initially developed by UNICEF Thailand and the Pan Pacific Hotel Bangkok as an innovative way of tackling child trafficking and sexual exploitation by providing employment for at-risk children. The scheme was soon expanded to other hotels, a bank and a hospital.

“This is an excellent example of how private companies and an organisation like UNICEF can work together to change the lives of children and young people,” said Andrew Morris, the UNICEF Thailand Deputy Representative. “Not only has it changed the lives of the young people who went through YCDP, but also the lives of their brothers, sisters and families because of the money they have sent back home for their education.”

In the early years, UNICEF provided full funding for the YCDP, including training, transport and accommodation costs. In 2008, UNICEF asked the hotels to take over these costs as part of their training budget and corporate social responsibility. “The programme is now entirely funded by the companies themselves, which has allowed it to grow,” Morris said. “This is a much more sustainable model.”

Tanai's kitchen
Daojai prepares dinner in the kitchen of JW Marriot hotel
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/Jingjai
A few weeks later, Daojai was hard at work in the kitchen of the JW Marriot Hotel on Ploenchit Road in central Bangkok, a grand building with high ceilings and wood panelled walls. The corridors echoed with the clip clop of heels on marble floors and the tinkle of spoons on saucers. Daojai was wearing a starched white kitchen uniform and preparing food for dinner. Working alongside an experienced chef, she chopped vegetables, mixed sauces and put trays of food in an industrial sized microwave. Afterwards, she cleaned the surfaces and kitchen utensils.

“Daojai is a quiet girl but she’s motivated and works hard,” said Tanai Jitmanowan, Main Kitchen Chef at the JW Marriott Hotel “I’ve seen her progress over the last month. She’s more fluid in preparing the food. If she wanted to, she could be a chef herself in five years’ time.”

Rojana Pongpairoj, Front Office Manager of the JW Marriott Hotel agrees that Daojai is a promising student. “We’ve had lots of weddings at the hotel lately so there have been many opportunities for Daojai to learn how to arrange flowers,” Rojana said. “I show her which colours suit different rooms and events, how to clean the vase and prepare the flowers. She’s active and a fast learner – I only have to show her how to do something once. Sometimes she stays behind after work to help out.”

Traveling light

Daojai’s friend Duang in the dormitory room they share in Ramkhamhaeng
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/Andy Brown
After work, Daojai returns to the dormitory where she shares a dormitory room with two other Mon girls from her village, Duang and May. It’s a small, bare room with bunk beds and a single wardrobe. The girls don’t have many possessions – just a few clothes and a book of short stories. But the rooms are bright and clean, and a cool breeze blows in from the lush, green gardens outside.

“The first week, I thought I’d made the wrong decision coming here,” Daojai said, looking back on her first month in the programme. “The trainers made me work very hard. Once I had to unblock a toilet by putting my hand down it. But after that I thought ‘I have to fight for this’ and it’s got better since.”

Daojai works a six day week at the hotel and spends most of her free time with Duang and May. “We do everything together,” she continued. “We go shopping, eat dinner and gossip. We used to buy food at the street stalls but now we go to Big C because it’s cheaper. My daily allowance is 120 Baht but I try to spend just 50 to 100 Baht.”

When Daojai gets lonely, she calls her mother on her mobile phone. “I don’t want to cry so I keep my problems to myself,” she said. “My mother tells me to take care of myself and always take an umbrella when I go out. She said if I can’t cope I can come home. But I want to stay and complete the course.”

Home is where the heart is

Daojai working with her mother in the cabbage fields near their village
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/Andy Brown
Half way through the course, Daojai went home for a weekend to visit her family in Tab Berk Village in Petchabun Province. The village sits upon a ridge at the top of the mountain range. The main industry in the area is cabbage farming, and the fields were full of women spraying crops with pesticide, protective masks over their faces. Men carried cabbages down from the fields in woven baskets on their backs. The air was cool and fresh, and full of the sounds of cocks crowing and crickets in the trees.

Daojai’s wooden house is set upon a bed of packed earth. There is one large room with a bed in the corner and a kitchen out the back. The family’s few belongings hang from nails that have been pounded into the walls. The only sign of modernity is a large TV attached to a satellite dish outside. “I was born here in Tab Berk,” Daojai said. “At first I lived with my parents and grandparents. When I was older, I went to boarding school in Petchaburi City.”

Life is hard in the mountains, but Daojai enjoys being with her family. “When I’m home I wake up at 5 a.m. and help my mother cook and do the laundry. At 6 a.m. I go out with my father and work all day in the fields. In the evening, I help my mother cook and then I go to sleep. I miss my mom most of all. Here, I see her face every morning when I wake up.”

The next morning, Daojai said goodbye to her parents and grandparents. On the way back, she stopped at the local temple to make an offering. “I asked the spirits to keep me safe in Bangkok and help me complete my studies,” she said.

Over the years, the YCDP has provided over 1,500 young people like Daojai with training and a career. Today, there over 40 in Thailand participate in the programme. Some of the early students have gone on to pursue successful careers in the hotel industry.

“I was in a hotel recently making a booking for a friend of mine,” UNICEF’s Morris said. “When they realized I was from UNICEF, they said ‘we have some of your YCDP graduates in our senior staff at the hotel’. So we know that they’ve done very well.”

On 21 January, UNICEF Thailand will launch a five-episode reality video series called ‘A Chance for Change’, following Daojai and another girl Urairat throughout their training. The series shows the challenges they face and how they strive to overcome them after coming to Bangkok. 

The author
Andy Brown is Digital Communications Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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