Migrant Child Labor in the Thai Seafood Industry
September 23, 2015
Migrant workers from Myanmar fill a critical niche in Thailand’s multi-billion-dollar seafood industry. As Thais increasingly shy away from shrimp and seafood processing jobs that many consider “3D” work – dirty, dangerous, and difficult – migrants are stepping in to fill these positions. Of the 700,000 workers in Thailand’s shrimp sector alone, 80 percent are migrants, primarily from Myanmar. Many of these workers travel to Thailand with their families, and the coastal provinces where the shrimp and seafood processing industries are based are home to large migrant communities.
To better understand the conditions in which these migrants work, and to explore the experiences of the industry’s youngest workers, The Asia Foundation and the International Labour Organization (ILO) conducted a joint research project focused on children working in Thailand’s shrimp and seafood processing industries. The study looks not only at the substantial number of children aged 15-17 who work legally in these sectors, but also at younger children who work informally – through home-based shrimp peeling, by accompanying parents to the workplace where they perform light tasks, or by staying home from school to care for younger siblings so that their parents can work.
The study sheds light on a number of issues affecting children in the shrimp and seafood sectors. Children working in seafood processing are more frequently exposed to workplace hazards than children in other industries, and they are twice as likely to incur an injury. Boys are particularly at risk, as they tend to take on more hazardous tasks, such as unloading crates of fish from ships in the early morning hours – a task that exposes them to heavy loads and slippery surfaces during hours when they may be drowsy and vulnerable to injury. Despite such hazards, 44 percent of children in the industry lack personal protective equipment such as boots and gloves, and migrant children are less likely to have such equipment than Thais. Moreover, few working children are aware of labor laws requiring protective equipment, limiting working hours, and ensuring safe working environments. Only three percent of children surveyed held a written contract for their work.
The study also found that large numbers of children in the shrimp and seafood industry, both migrant and Thai, are not attending school. Although Thai law guarantees access to education for all children to age 15, regardless of citizenship or registration status, the study found that about one-quarter of migrant children drop out at the end of sixth grade (around age 12), and nearly half of those that remain drop out when they reach the legal working age of 15.
With these stark numbers in mind, the research team explored the factors that are leading families to pull their children from school for work. Through focus group discussions with migrant parents, NGO representatives, school administrators, and others, we confirmed that the strongest factor, particularly for poorer families and those in debt, is the possibility of earning income for the family. In addition, migrants who believe they will soon return to Myanmar are more likely to let their children work, as these families tend to be focused on accruing savings before returning to an unknown economic future in Myanmar. The study revealed that many families also pull children – particularly girls – from school after age 12 so that they can care for younger siblings, thus freeing up parents and children over age 15 for work.
Another factor leading migrant children to drop out of school is the difficulty many experience when transitioning into the formal Thai school system. Part of the problem is the common practice of enrolling new migrants at the first grade level – regardless of their age. School administrators believe that this helps them learn Thai and catch up with the curriculum, but it also has unintended consequences: older Myanmar children are embarrassed to be paired with much younger Thai classmates; teachers find themselves struggling to manage classrooms of children at vastly different levels of development. Frustration with this system, and the difficulty of achieving a quality education within it, lead many migrants to choose work over school.
Equipped with these findings, the research team developed a number of recommendations to improve workplace safety for children aged 15-17 and incentives for families to send younger children to school. The recommendations involve a combination of independent actions by government, the private sector, civil society, and the international community, as well as multi-stakeholder collaboration among these actors.
With regard to labor conditions, international buyers and the government have an important role to play in ensuring compliance with international labor standards. Buyers hold substantial leverage over suppliers, and this leverage can be used to encourage improvement. NGOs can support this progress by providing technical assistance to small and medium-sized producers to help them upgrade their operations. Such improvements will help workers in the near term and support the development of a sustainable seafood industry for Thailand in the long term.
To improve education for migrant children, the report recommends that they start school early – ideally at three to four years of age – by enrolling in childcare centers managed by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS). An early start to school will give these children the proficiency in Thai to enter first grade with their peers (in turn making it more likely that these migrant children will stay in school). Migrant children’s enrollment in early childhood education will also help ease the burden of childcare that is currently falling on their adolescent siblings, enabling these older children to stay in school past the age of 12.
For migrant children who come to Thailand later, and therefore do not have the option of entering Thai school at an early age, we recommend that tutoring be provided to prepare them to enter Thai school with peers their own age, and that ongoing tutoring be made available to ensure that this transition is smooth. Vocational training should also be made available to migrant children aged 13 to 14 to encourage parents to keep them in school during the years when many drop out. School-based vocational training programs linked to market needs (and if possible, to employment at age 15) will provide a strong incentive for parents to keep their children in school.
As a complement to the preceding recommendations, the report identifies a timely opportunity to improve migrant children’s enrollment. In March of this year, Thailand implemented a new regulation that allows migrant workers to renew their four-year work permit after just 30 days out of the country (rather than three years as required under the previous policy). We believe that this change holds enormous potential to reduce child labor and encourage more migrant children to go to school. As discussed, many of the migrants surveyed who were not sending their children to school were focused on the accumulation of family savings in the immediate term, as their time horizon for earning was a short one. By giving migrants the assurance that they can stay in Thailand for the long term (as long as they continue to have productive working relationships with their employers), this new regulation will help parents feel more invested in a life in Thailand for themselves and their children. Our research suggests that this change will increase migrants’ willingness to send their children to primary school to learn Thai and to secondary school to develop marketable skills, keeping them in school throughout their childhood years.
NGOs, government, and employers who seek to retain workers can support this positive development through education and advocacy that encourages migrant parents to choose education over work for their children. Thailand has been proactive in supporting migrant children’s access to education through Education for All legislation. By working together to ensure that all children take advantage of this right, we can combat child labor, while providing children with the space to learn and develop into productive and contributing adults.
Ellen Boccuzzi is acting director of The Asia Foundation’s Governance and Law Program, and lead author of Migrant and Child Labor in Thailand’s Shrimp and Other Seafood Supply Chains: Labor Conditions and the Decision to Study or Work, a joint study with the International Labour Organization. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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