A young girl prepares to compete in a muay Thai fight in Thailand this past fall.

Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times/Redux

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.10, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.5, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.10

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.3, Civ.6, Civ.10, Civ.12, Eco.1, Eco.2, Geo.1, Geo.4

NCSS: Global connections; People, places, and environments; Civic ideals and practices; Individuals, groups, and institutions


JS 360°

Child Labor

Fighting Their Way Out of Poverty

Hundreds of thousands of kids in Thailand turn to kickboxing—the country’s dangerous national pastime—to earn money for their families. But when a 13-year-old boxer died after being hit in the ring last fall, many people began to wonder: Is it sport or child abuse?

As You Read, Think About: What can the global community do to prevent child labor?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Sprawled on a bamboo mat, 12-year-old Supattra Inthirat closed her eyes as her father massaged her toned arms with oil. In preparation for her 15th muay Thai (moy tie) fight, her father whispered a prayer into her ear.

When Supattra, known as Pancake, faced her rival in front of 400 fans under the bright lights on a small stage in northeastern Thailand, she would be fighting for a purpose: $60. That’s almost half a month’s salary for many families in the region.

“She will be a champion,” her father said. “She must train early to build up her boxing bones.”

Supattra Inthirat, 12, sprawled on a bamboo mat and closed her eyes as her father massaged her toned arms with oil. Her father whispered a prayer into her ear in preparation for her 15th muay Thai (moy tie) fight.

Supattra, known as Pancake, faced her rival in front of 400 fans under the bright lights on a small stage in northeastern Thailand. She would be fighting for a purpose: $60. That is almost half a month’s salary for many families in the region.

“She will be a champion,” her father said. “She must train early to build up her boxing bones.”

Muay Thai is a sport that mixes kicking, punching, kneeing, and elbowing. Fights are typically five rounds of three minutes each. Competitors wear 10-ounce gloves—and fight without any protective headgear. Over the past 400 years, muay Thai has grown from a local sport into a worldwide phenomenon popularized by movies and video games.

Across Thailand, a country in Southeast Asia, muay Thai is embraced by both the rich and the poor. For the poor, it can be a form of social mobility, a means for muscled young boxers—some as young as 6—to fight their families’ way out of poverty and into the country’s growing middle class (see “Thailand’s Inequality,” below). For the rich, it’s an excuse to gamble, with some people betting tens of thousands of dollars each night.

This past November, the sport made international headlines when 13-year-old Anucha Tasako died after being knocked out in a muay Thai fight just south of the capital city of Bangkok. Video showed that he had received five fierce blows to the head. Two days after the fight, Anucha died in a hospital. He had fought an astonishing 174 bouts since the age of 8.

Now Thailand has been left to reconsider the brutality of a sport that involves underage fighters—and the shadowy gambling economy built around it.

“It’s child labor and child abuse,” says Jiraporn Laothamatas, a doctor who specializes in treating the head, neck, and spine. She’s leading the charge to ban kids from boxing. Last year, she released a seven-year study on the effect of muay Thai on children’s brains. Her research showed a steady drop in IQ and brain function for kids who fight. 

“We are destroying our children for sport,” Jiraporn says.

Muay Thai is a sport that mixes kicking, punching, kneeing, and elbowing. Fights are typically five rounds of three minutes each. Competitors wear 10-ounce gloves. They fight without any protective headgear. Muay Thai has grown from a local sport into a worldwide phenomenon over the past 400 years. Movies and video games have made it more popular.

Across Thailand, a country in Southeast Asia, muay Thai is embraced by both the rich and the poor. For the poor, it can be a form of social mobility. It is a chance for muscled young boxers—some as young as 6—to help their families. They hope to fight their families’ way out of poverty and into the country’s growing middle class (see “Thailand’s Inequality,” below). For the rich, muay Thai is an excuse to gamble. Some people bet tens of thousands of dollars each night.

The sport made international headlines this past November. Anucha Tasako, 13, died after being knocked out in a muay Thai fight. It happened just south of the capital city of Bangkok. Video showed that Anucha had received five fierce blows to the head. He died in a hospital two days after the fight. He had fought an astonishing 174 bouts since the age of 8.

Now Thailand has been left to rethink the danger of a sport that involves underage fighters—and the shadowy gambling economy built around it.

“It’s child labor and child abuse,” says Jiraporn Laothamatas. She is a doctor who specializes in treating the head, neck, and spine. She is leading the charge to ban kids from boxing. Last year, she released a seven-year study on the effect of muay Thai on children’s brains. Her research showed a steady drop in IQ and brain function for kids who fight.

“We are destroying our children for sport,” Jiraporn says.

Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times/Redux

CHILD FIGHTERS: Two boys compete in a muay Thai fight in northeastern Thailand.

“It’s in Our Blood to Fight”

Anucha’s death stirred a wave of shock and anger across Thailand. In response, lawmakers there ­proposed a measure that would ban competitive boxing for kids younger than 12. It would also require child fighters between the ages of 12 and 15 to wear safety equipment, including head guards.

But not everyone agrees with the proposal. 

“This will destroy muay Thai,” says Sudhichai Chokekijchai, a doctor for professional boxers in Bangkok and a fight enthusiast. “We should be focused on [preventing injuries. These kids] are fighting for their lives.”

The national rules state that boxers 15 and older are required to register to fight officially. For competitors under that age, however, the rules are vague. Parental permission is required, but there is little guidance regarding gambling and safety.

Meanwhile, most fights happen unofficially. A Thai investigative journalism center reported that about 10,000 child fighters had registered from 2010 to 2017. Yet according to boxing officials, nearly 200,000 children under age 15 regularly compete.

“It’s in our blood to fight,” Sudhichai says. “These laws will only push people away from doing it safely. These kids are healthy. They stay away from drugs and crime. How will the government support them if they take fighting away?”

Anucha’s death stirred a wave of shock and anger across Thailand. In response, lawmakers there proposed a measure that would ban competitive boxing for kids younger than 12. It would also require child fighters between the ages of 12 and 15 to wear safety equipment. That includes head guards.

But not everyone agrees with the proposal.

“This will destroy muay Thai,” says Sudhichai Chokekijchai. He is a doctor for professional boxers in Bangkok and a fight enthusiast. “We should be focused on [preventing injuries. These kids] are fighting for their lives.”

The national rules state that boxers 15 and older are required to register to fight officially. The rules are vague for competitors under that age. Parental permission is required. But there is little guidance as to gambling and safety.

Meanwhile, most fights happen unofficially. A Thai investigative journalism center reported that more than 10,000 child fighters had registered from 2010 to 2017. Yet according to boxing officials, nearly 200,000 children under age 15 regularly compete.

“It’s in our blood to fight,” Sudhichai says. “These laws will only push people away from doing it safely. These kids are healthy. They stay away from drugs and crime. How will the government support them if they take fighting away?”

Thailand’s Inequality

Anirut Thailand/Shutterstock.com

Kids catch fish in a river near Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

Once a poor, agricultural nation, Thailand is widely considered an economic success story. Over the past few decades, the nation’s economy has boomed, thanks largely to increases in tourism and manufacturing. According to the World Bank, the country’s poverty rate declined to 7 percent in 2015, from 67 percent in 1986.

However, most of the economic growth has been limited to the area around the capital, Bangkok. Many people in rural areas, especially those not visited by tourists, continue to struggle. More than 80 percent of the country’s 7.1 million poor people were living in rural areas as of 2014. 

In these places, many children have to work on farms, in factories, or in fisheries to help their families. Some turn to other activities, such as muay Thai, to fight their way out of poverty.

Once a poor, agricultural nation, Thailand is widely considered an economic success story. Over the past few decades, the nation’s economy has boomed, thanks largely to increases in tourism and manufacturing. According to the World Bank, the country’s poverty rate declined to 7 percent in 2015, from 67 percent in 1986.

However, most of the economic growth has been limited to the area around the capital, Bangkok. Many people in rural areas, especially those not visited by tourists, continue to struggle. More than 80 percent of the country’s 7.1 million poor people were living in rural areas as of 2014. 

In these places, many children have to work on farms, in factories, or in fisheries to help their families. Some turn to other activities, such as muay Thai, to fight their way out of poverty.

Necessary Income

In Thailand, muay Thai com­petitions have stayed outside child protection and labor laws (see “Understanding . . . Child Labor Around the World,” below). Thai law says that only kids who earn a salary are workers. Any money won in muay Thai fights is consid­ered an award, not a salary, so it’s legal.

In the poorer and more rural regions of Thailand, where child boxing has its strongest following, that money can be an important boost. Compared with entire families that may earn $200 a month working on farms and in rice paddies, a child fighter can bring in $60 to $600 for a victory—and even more for a knockout.

In Thailand, muay Thai competitions have stayed outside child protection and labor laws (see “Understanding . . . Child Labor Around the World,” below). Thai law says that only kids who earn a salary are workers. Any money won in muay Thai fights is considered an award and not a salary. That makes it legal.

Child boxing has its strongest following in Thailand’s poorer and more rural regions. There, that money can be an important boost. Entire families may earn $200 a month working on farms and in rice paddies. By comparison, a child fighter can bring in $60 to $600 for a victory. A knockout can earn even more.

Understanding ...

Child Labor Around the World

Markus Matzel/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Worldwide, nearly 152 million kids ages 5 to 17 are child laborers. Many of them live in poor villages in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia where there are few high-paying job opportunities. As a result, children are often forced to work to help support their families. In many cases, kids spend so much time on the job that they aren’t able to go to school, further weakening their chances of escaping poverty. 

The good news, however, is that some progress has been made. In fact, the number of child laborers worldwide has decreased by 40 percent since 2000. Experts say that’s largely the result of international efforts to strengthen—and enforce—existing child labor laws.

Worldwide, nearly 152 million kids ages 5 to 17 are child laborers. Many of them live in poor villages in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia where there are few high-paying job opportunities. As a result, children are often forced to work to help support their families. In many cases, kids spend so much time on the job that they aren’t able to go to school, further weakening their chances of escaping poverty. 

The good news, however, is that some progress has been made. In fact, the number of child laborers worldwide has decreased by 40 percent since 2000. Experts say that’s largely the result of international efforts to strengthen—and enforce—existing child labor laws.

The Life of a Child Boxer

For young fighters, a life of discipline and dedication begins early. In small, makeshift training camps in rural parts of Thailand, children punch donated bags with rotting gloves.

The best of them are recruited by Bangkok fight gyms. These act as boarding schools, where elite young fighters live away from their families, sleeping piled together on tiny mattresses. 

A life of discipline and dedication begins early for young fighters. Children punch donated bags with rotting gloves in small, makeshift training camps in rural parts of Thailand.

The best of them are recruited by Bangkok fight gyms. These act as boarding schools, where elite young fighters live away from their families. They sleep piled together on tiny mattresses.

$600

Amount a young fighter in Thailand can earn for a muay Thai victory

SOURCE: The New York Times

The fighters follow a rigorous training routine. They begin their day at 4:30 in the morning with a 6-mile run in the dark. Then they practice boxing from 5:30 to 7, followed by school into the after­noon. Then there’s another training session until the sun goes down. The dream is to go pro, where fighters can earn up to $40,000 a year.

At the famous Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, muay Thai fights are held four times a week. Thai men and women and foreign tourists pack into the stadium, shoving their hands into the air to signal their bets, which can range from $50 to up to $500.

The fighters follow a tough training routine. They begin their day at 4:30 in the morning with a 6-mile run in the dark. Then they practice boxing from 5:30 to 7. This is followed by school into the afternoon. Then there is another training session until the sun goes down. The dream is to go pro. Pro fighters can earn up to $40,000 a year.

At the famous Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, muay Thai fights are held four times a week. Thai men and women and foreign tourists pack into the stadium. They shove their hands into the air to signal their bets. These can range from $50 to up to $500.

“She’ll Need to Train Harder”

Pancake’s career has had a promising start. Girls are relatively new to muay Thai but make up a growing sector. Coming from a middle-class family, Pancake is one of the luckier boxers. She’s able to train with her father, a former fighter himself, in their makeshift home gym. Pancake had won 12 com­petitions going into her 15th fight.

That night, she climbed into the ring to face another 12-year-old girl. After five rounds of flailing arms and legs, the two girls walked off, faces sweaty and battered. The judges’ unanimous decision: Pancake had lost. Her father gathered her things. “She’ll need to train harder,” he said. 

Pancake’s career has had a promising start. Girls are relatively new to muay Thai. But they make up a growing sector. Coming from a middle-class family, Pancake is one of the luckier boxers. Her father is a former fighter himself. She is able to train with him in their makeshift home gym. Pancake had won 12 competitions going into her 15th fight.

That night, she climbed into the ring to face another 12-year-old girl. After five rounds of flailing arms and legs, the two girls walked off. Their faces were sweaty and battered. The judges’ unanimous decision: Pancake had lost. Her father gathered her things. “She’ll need to train harder,” he said.

Write About It! What limits—if any—should the Thai govern­ment place on muay Thai fighting? Should children be banned from participating? Using details from the article, write an essay supporting your point of view. Be sure to consider how officials could balance kids’ desire to help support their families with the need to protect kids’ health and safety.

How to Fight Child Labor

Demand Change 
Conduct research online to find out whether the companies you support use child labor at any point in their supply chains. If they do, contact them via social media and urge them to do their part to end the practice.

Shop Locally 
More than 70 percent of child laborers work in agriculture. To ensure that your fruits and vegetables were ethically harvested, encourage your parents to shop at a local farmer’s market—or grow some of your own produce.

Raise Awareness 
Let people know about the plight of child laborers worldwide—and what you’re doing to help them. Spread the word online with the hashtag #endchildlabor. 

Demand Change 
Conduct research online to find out whether the companies you support use child labor at any point in their supply chains. If they do, contact them via social media and urge them to do their part to end the practice.

Shop Locally 
More than 70 percent of child laborers work in agriculture. To ensure that your fruits and vegetables were ethically harvested, encourage your parents to shop at a local farmer’s market—or grow some of your own produce.

Raise Awareness 
Let people know about the plight of child laborers worldwide—and what you’re doing to help them. Spread the word online with the hashtag #endchildlabor. 

A Global Problem

This map highlights a few countries where child labor is still common. 

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

MAP SKILLS

1. Which region of the world has the most child laborers?

2. How many kids there are child laborers?

3. What percentage of kids in the Americas are child laborers?

4. About 62 million kids are child laborers in which region?

5. The equator runs through which labeled country?

6. According to this map, what do some child laborers in that country do?

7. In which direction would you travel to get from that nation to Côte d’Ivoire?

8. How much does the average child laborer in Bangladesh earn a day?

9. On which continent is that country located?

10. Which labeled countries are entirely north of the equator?

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