Fellow Since 2002
This profile was prepared when Khemporn Wiroonrapun was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.
Khemporn Wiroonrapun promotes the rights of immigrant child laborers in Thailand, an overlooked, under-represented subset of child workers, and one of the country's most serious human rights problems.
The New Idea
An experienced advocate for child workers in Thailand, Khemporn is exposing the growing, yet overlooked, problem of immigrant child labor and debt-bondage. Because illegal immigrants lack protection from the Thai government, they face greater discrimination and more adverse circumstances than Thai workers. Khemporn and her staff at the Bangkok-based Foundation for Child Development reach children directly through prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, and repatriation. Additionally, FCD partners with government agencies, lawyers, national and regional civil society and youth development organizations, and the media to develop effective responses to this issue in Thailand and in neighboring countries. By documenting case studies, collecting and analyzing data, and uncovering migration trends and causes, Khemporn is deepening the public's understanding of the complex set of circumstances that give rise to immigrant child labor and debt-bondage.
Child labor is one of Thailand’s most pressing social problems. Hundreds of thousands of girls and boys work in slave-like conditions in garment factories, packaging stores, restaurants, fisheries. Children as young as eight years old work long hours—up to twelve hours a day—and suffer physical, psychological, and sometimes sexual abuse from factory owners and other adults. Instead of going to school or learning a trade, they spend their childhoods performing repetitive, mindless tasks—clipping loose treads, securing bottle caps, serving restaurant food, welding steel, cleaning fish—that blind or cripple them and leave them with no future and no way out. Owing in large measure to the efforts of Khemporn and other child advocates, the issue of child labor in Thailand has received national and international attention in the past two decades, prompting protective government actions. The government has raised the age of compulsory education from six to twelve and the age of legal employment to fifteen. Although such policies are major triumphs in the campaign against child labor, Khemporn has identified a neglected group: immigrant child workers. She estimates that these children—about half are girls and half boys—number well over 200,000, comprising roughly 20-25% of illegal foreign labor in Thailand. The largest group comes from Myanmar, followed by Laos and Cambodia. Usually aided by friends or an agent, these children find their way to Thailand with the expectation of wealth and adventure. They quickly discover, however, that as illegal immigrants, they have almost no rights. They must work in abominable conditions, taking jobs that Thai children refuse, and earning as little as half the standard salary of their Thai counterparts. Entering Thailand after paying an agent to bring them in, they enter a cycle of debt-bondage that leaves them no option but to continue working. Exploitation and abuse by factory owners and others is often extreme, sometimes resulting in mutilation or death. The Thai government’s policy on children’s rights makes is clear that the state is responsible for the protection and development of its children without discrimination. But its five-year operation plan (1997-2001) only vaguely suggests the government’s role in preventing and correcting the problem of immigrant child labor. Because these children are living in Thailand illegally, the government does not assume responsibility for them. Indeed, it views them as criminals, and instances of abuse and detention by police are all too frequent. While estimates suggest a decrease in child labor in Thailand, Khemporn’s research reveals that immigrant child labor is increasing, as children flood into Thailand to escape the comparative poverty, and in some cases political violence, of their home countries.
Khemporn’s strategy rests on three primary approaches: information gathering and analysis; rescue, rehabilitation and prevention; and awareness raising at the national and regional level. Owing in large measure to the work of FCD over the past two decades, the Thai government and public have begun to formally recognize child labor as a critical problem in Thailand. Now, Khemporn is trying to achieve a similar level of visibility for foreign child labor. Working through staff in eight provinces—in the north, northeast, and central areas—as well as with partner organizations in neighboring countries, Khemporn is documenting case studies to determine the nature and scope of the problem. The resulting information, both statistical and anecdotal, enables her to reach policymakers and the general public, compelling them to act. Khemporn sees the media as a key actor in getting these stories to the public and in mobilizing support for the rights of immigrant child workers. While FCD cannot help every immigrant child worker, Khemporn and her staff rescue children who are found in particularly distressful or abusive situations. With the aim of fostering a stronger government response, they collaborate with the existing state systems. Civil society organizations, community members, and child advocates report about one hundred immigrant children per year to FCD’s staff. These children are found on the street, in the train station, hiding under a bridge, or confined against their will in a factory. As the foundation’s central office is strategically located beside Bangkok’s main train terminal, many referrals come from neighbors. Reports are directed to FCD staff, who then validate the information and send a team to rescue the child. As rescue efforts can prove challenging, even dangerous, Khemporn works with the Department of Police, which has the authority to enter and search factories. Rescued children stay either at one of FCD’s two dormitories in Bangkok or at the Department of Public Welfare for the five-six months it takes to work with embassy staff to identify the child’s family and, where appropriate, arrange for child’s return. In some cases, FCD secures pro bono assistance from lawyers in steering children through the appropriate legal channels. In addition, rescued children receive psychological help and learn vocational skills, such as sewing and cooking. The children are always welcome at FCD for social activities with other children, many of them Thai child workers. Khemporn is working from the prevention angle as well to counter the myth that immigration to Thailand results in a happier, freer, more prosperous life—a myth advanced by agents and others who stand to gain from illegal transport of children to Thailand. In coordination with two Laotian youth organizations, FCD has published a series of multi-lingual cartoon booklets that illustrate the potential horrors of immigrant child labor. As former child workers are the best spokespeople for the realities of their lives, Khemporn has arranged exposure trips for immigrant children living in Bangkok. The exposure trips enable former workers to tell their stories to children who may be considering signing on with an agent. In addition, Khemporn publishes a newsletter in five languages for child workers and is working to strengthen cooperation with police at the border. Of Thailand’s neighboring countries, Laos is a comparatively easy case, as FCD partners with domestic youth organizations. But other neighbors—most notably, Myanmar—represent a greater challenge, as there are no domestic civil society organizations, and political turmoil and violence further complicate FCD’s efforts to reach children before they leave home.Khemporn devotes a substantial share of her energies to helping relevant government officials understand the many issues relating to immigrant child workers. She sees clarification of the government’s role as essential in directing all actors involved. As a recent appointee to the National Committee on Child Labor Protection, which reports to the Minister of Labor, Khemporn engages community members and factory owners to increase awareness of the issue and engender collective, region-wide responsibility for solving this problem.
Born to corn farmers, Khemporn grew up in northern Thailand. As there were no secondary schools in or near her village, she landed in Bangkok at a boarding school attended primarily by students of affluent families in the nation’s capital. Her observations of economic disparity among her classmates would lay the foundation for her life’s work with child laborers. In 1978 Khemporn enrolled at Thammasat University, one of Thailand’s leading universities and the epicenter of the pro-democracy movement of the 1970s. There, she became involved in the country’s burgeoning civil society movement and spent her weekends helping families in Thailand’s poorest region. As a student activist, she organized seminars on rural poverty and education reform. At twenty-one, she joined the nascent Foundation for Child Development. First as a volunteer, later as paid staff member, she saw the inequity of opportunity, denial of basic needs, abuse and sometimes murder of child laborers in Southeast Asia. During her first year at FCD, Khemporn created a television spot called the “Project for the Little Hungry” and invited a well-known poet to compose a poem for the spot. Showing a small child eating soy, the spot called attention to a problem more concrete than poverty—acute malnutrition prevalent among children in many rural areas of the country. This portrayal, honest and clear, shocked thousands of viewers across Thailand, including government officials, and secured an endowment for the foundation. Khemporn’s current work with immigrant child workers stems from an understanding of the complexities of the problem, as well as a deep commitment to changing the circumstances under which hundreds of thousands of children, Thai and immigrant, grow up. In 1998, Khemporn completed a master’s thesis on immigrant child labor in Thailand. Since 1988, she has served as FCD’s overall executive director, managing its staff and programs from Bangkok.