Thailand: nimble fingers, precarious lives


Fifty-year-old Nangloo sells flowers at night in north Thailand’s regional capital, Chiang Mai. Like many others uprooted by forest protection and efforts to eliminate rebel or opium-producing havens, she’d rather be living back in the countryside.

But survival dictates her existence.

“It’s better to live in the city. We don’t have land to farm in the mountains. If we had land in the mountains, I would prefer to live there,” says Nangloo, who lives with other ethnic Lahu in the poor suburb of Tha Sala.

For women, particularly those from once self-sufficient mountain peoples, the commercialisation of traditional crafts is amongst the most accessible options for work. Still, precarious, per-piece income from embroidery and other crafts barely keeps up with growing monetisation of the villagers’ lives. Everything now costs money.

Recruiters visit Tha Sala daily to collect the men they need for construction and other work.

For women, the only available jobs are preparing wholesale fruit and flowers to sell in the city, or selling intricate traditional embroidery to a program called the Royal Project.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) awarded a number of grants to the royal family for its activities through the Royal Project.

But the FAO also acknowledged that the so-called “hill tribes” as they are known in Thailand [editor’s note: the name given to tribal peoples who migrated from China and Tibet over the past few centuries] lacked some basic rights and were ‘unprepared’ for urban environments, to which they fled in search for better life.

Marting Chaisuiya of Thai-Lahu Christian Churches, a Christian Lahu organisation that helps Lahu people to obtain identity cards and other services, says that standard yearly income one earns in a village can be earned in a city within a month.

Narong ‘Solomon’ Nananikhorn, also of Thai-Lahu Christian Churches, says that forest preservation and the lure of money can lead to land dispossession. Villagers then become labour to rich people.”

Since late 1960s, the royal program has helped to integrate north Thailand’s ethnic minority villagers into the mainstream economy by finding urban markets for their produce. There is also a strategic objective: the government’s Highland Research and Development Institute claims that mountainous areas “offer hideouts for rebels and dissidents and they were often times a location for opium production”.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has cooperated extensively with the Thai government and Royal Project Foundation in these efforts.

With human activity limited in protected forests, many Lahu move to the lowlands in search of work.

Exposure to modern commodities, such as smartphones, also encourages villagers to seek an income.

Nako, 60, embroiders clothes and bags for the Royal Project. “The queen [project] says, you can make the design by yourself,” she explains. But even after 10 years on the job, she is never sure how much she will earn per piece.

She says she can earn around €20, but completing a piece can take three months, and rent in the settlement costs about €80.

Her teenage son goes to a Christian school for Lahu children who cannot afford to study in the city, but if he chooses to study further, the family will need to save for tuition. Subsistence work complements their meagre wages.

In Bangkloy, an ethnic Karen village of 550 inhabitants, a royal-initiated textile workshop provides work for 28 women.

The Karen people, as well as being one of the “hill tribes” in Thailand, are well-known for their embroidery traditions, but women who work for the Royal Project say they cannot independently sell the works they produce.

Some sit in the shade and embroider outside, using samples provided.

Nawalat, 31, tells Equal Times: “If you work for this centre, you can get two kinds of payment: 140 baht (US$4.15) if you are more experienced, otherwise 130 baht (US$3.80) a day. For weaving, you get paid per metre.” In Thailand, the minimum wage varies depending on the province.

Women like Nawalat have little hope of economic independence: according to the deputy chief of the village, there are no private employers around the village.

International Labour Organization (ILO) data shows that nearly three-in-five women working in Thailand are in vulnerable employment, working for family members or as own-account workers. Agriculture is still their main source of livelihood.

“Young women, if they can’t find a job after school, leave the village and go to cities,” says Nawalat. It has been reported that ethnic minority women and children are vulnerable to human trafficking as they search for better income.

Thailand’s embroidery exports amount to approximately US$66.7 million annually, with about 13 per cent going to Europe.

In an article on feminised labour, researcher Mary Beth Mills shows how “nimble-fingered dexterity and patience”, as well as respect toward authority, has made the labour of Thai women an internationally-marketed commodity.

The Thai government has sought to promote that image while encouraging ‘self-sufficiency’, a doctrine that won the king of Thailand the UN Human Development Award in 2006.

Self-sufficiency, including through subsistence farming and crafts that pay per piece, have helped sustain Thailand’s unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the world at under one per cent.

It’s also given Thailand, according to ILO, amongst the highest female labour force participation rates in the world. But for many Thai women, it remains a precarious life on subsistence wages.


Daiva Repečkaitė’s reporting trip to Thailand was paid for by the Minority Realities in the News programme, funded by the European Union.