Thailand - selling flowers at midnight

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Thailand – selling flowers at midnight

Alexia Kalaitzi writes about the exploitation of the indigenous people in Thailand.


© Alexia Kalaitzi

Many indigenous children in Chiang Mai work until late at night every day selling flowers to tourists in the streets. This is the only way most of them can support their families. They moved from villages in the mountains to the big city, the second biggest in Thailand.

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

The Lahu are one of the hill tribes in Thailand. They have been living in the mountain areas of the country, growing their food, for hundreds of years. So why do their children work on the streets of a big city?

We know from research that indigenous people – especially women and children – are more often used in trafficking, exploitation and child labour.

Phensiri Pansiri, manager of Focus, an organisation that fights against child trafficking, explains:

‘There are many reasons why indigenous children are used for child trafficking and exploitation. The first reason is poverty. Many indigenous families are poor and they need money for a better life. Secondly, some of them don’t have Thai nationality and ID cards so they cannot access many state services.’

There are different types of exploitation and trafficking, especially for children. People force some children to work in factories, or to beg in the streets; they send children to do massage, where they might also be sexual exploitation.

‘Children should be at home doing their homework or sleeping. But some parents ask their kids to go out and sell flowers or fruits at night. They know that children might have an accident. Some think tourists will buy if they see a child,’ said Pansiri, ‘some families do not have any other choice’.

Many indigenous people had to come to the city because of the forest laws of the Thai government. They government has protected large areas in the north, so indigenous groups had to move away from different national parks. People say they destroy the forest with their traditional growing methods, so they now have less land to farm.

Also, 20 per cent of the indigenous people in the north have not been allowed to have Thai citizenship. They have lived there for years, but almost 20,000 people do not have ID cards and have many problems with the state.

UNESCO said that it is very risky for young hill tribe people in N.Thailand not to have legal status. It is easy for them to fall into trafficking and exploitation.

Warisara Lorthawornchaisakul (a Lahu activist working for IMPECT) comes from a nearly empty village. All the people came to Chiang Mai in the last ten years to work in the construction industry. Warisara says this is because of new land laws and the religious problems between the leaders of the communities.

Also, there are problems getting education for their children. The teachers in the remote areas, including indigenous villages, can only teach there two or three days per week.


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 hostel outside Chiang Mai. Young Lahu people who used to live in the mountain villages and who want to become religious leaders stay there.

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 their new community, 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 sold flowers.’ Mostly, parents do not want their kids to work now, but ‘it might happen in other Lahu villages.’

Almost all the 30 families in this new community of bamboo huts work selling flowers, fruits or nuts. Near Mew’s family house, a man was cutting fruit to sell.

A lady was making 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. When he is 15, he might work,’ his mother says.

Warisara says the parents often prepare the flowers and the fruit in the 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. Some families do not send their children to work now,’ Saemni Sakda says. ‘It is cultural and traditional here in Asia,: children should do something to help their parents,’ Pansiri adds.

For the Lahu, it is more expensive to live in the city and many of them are poor. In Mew’s village, they only got electricity recently.

‘It is complicated,’ says Warisara. ‘When they move to the city, they have to pay rent every month for the land and pay to build some small huts.’

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

Jitra, 31 has two children. She says she likes this work because she is independent. She had a bad experience at her last job, working in a noodle shop. The employer didn’t pay her. Her children want to join the police.

Mew says only a few young Lahu can go to university. The cost for one semester can be 7,000 to 10,000 Thai baht ($215-$307). Phensiri Pansiri thinks we need to be flexible about child labour and the solutions. If the children want to help their parents by selling flowers, they can do it, but there should be some rules.

First, both parents and children must know what could happen.

‘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. There are car accidents and gang violence.

‘If I had a job in the mountain village, I would prefer to go back to the mountains,’ a Lahu woman says. Many Lahu who have moved to Chiang Mai agree. It’s the first time most of them have lived in the city and had jobs, trying to get a better life for their families.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).