I recall watching a 1985 American film recently, “The Color Purple” which tells the life of a poor African American woman named Celie Harris. By the time she is 14, she is sexually abused repeatedly by her own father and is later forced to marry a wealthy young local widower who treats her like a slave. The film shows the problems African American women faced during the early 1900s, including poverty, racism, and sexism.
Celie Harris reminds me of the real-life story of a childhood friend of mine named Jaa, whose poverty-stricken mother in Korat, in the northeast of the country, sold her. I was growing up in Thailand when I first met Jaa. She was washing dishes at the kitchen of the home of a grade school friend named Mali.
Looking back, I now realize that Jaa was a child slave. I befriended Jaa because we were close in age. I often questioned why Jaa had to do such tedious housework when girls her age went to school early in the morning, every day.
Defying my friend’s mother, who often told me not to talk to Jaa, I treated her as a friend. I would visit her in her tidy storage room with a torn mattress, which Mali’s mother provided for her. I was not aware then of the issue of child slavery because I was a child myself.
In Almost Every Household, a Slave
In Thailand, however, almost every well-to-do household has one or more child servants who are little more than slaves. Thai society calls girls like Jaa Khun Chaai or servant, a term, it seems to me now, was nothing more than a child slave.
I grew up in a royalist family and all my friends are royalists, or were. I have often wondered what became of Jaa. She lost her childhood through the injustice of a despicable social and political system that needs to change. She never went to school. She never learned to read Thai or enjoy playing with friends her age in a schoolyard. Her childhood was lost and probably her youth as well. She had to constantly follow orders from her Thai master.
Jaa would get up no later than 5 am to prepare breakfast for family members. She would work all day at household chores from dawn to dusk without rest. I noticed several times that Mali’s mother scolded her for not doing the assigned work fast enough. Inside me, I cursed at the mother often but I couldn’t do anything to help.
Child slaves are ubiquitous in Thailand, from ordinary families like Mali’s to family-run shops to light industries such as food products to small item manufacturing.
If you walk along a soi, a small street off the main road, every shop along both sides of the street possesses child slaves. Despite laws prohibiting child labor, the laws largely remain unenforced.
No Trouble from the Cops
I have lived for the past several decades in the UK. During my last visit to Thailand before I was charged with lese majeste for allegedly insulting the royal family, I talked with a shop owner who makes desserts for local hotel restaurants if he was afraid of being arrested for using child labor. His answer was an emphatic no. Thai cops, he said, are easily bribed.
The biggest slave industry of all is the sexual exploitation of women, mainly from Isaan, the impoverished north and northeast of the country. Poor parents often are contacted by a Nah Ma, a middleman/recruiter supposedly hiring daughters to work in Bangkok. The Nah Ma doesn’t tell the truth that in fact the daughters, especially cute ones, are sold into prostitution or massage parlors. The not-so-cute ones are sold to shops or households for manual labor.