KAMPHAENG PHET, Thailand — “Air,” the daughter of migrant workers from Burma, was abducted on her seventh birthday, and for the next five years forced to work as a housemaid without pay, suffering daily beatings and torture.
Air, whose real name has been withheld to protect her identity, managed to escape last year, and last month, a Thai court awarded her US$143,000 in compensation, but her kidnappers disappeared soon after posting bail in February 2013, so getting the payment could be a long, drawn-out process.
Activists say the story of Air’s brutal enslavement is not uncommon in Thailand, where domestic workers, mostly from impoverished neighboring countries, are exploited, abused and even killed.
“There is very serious abuse going on, whether be it trafficking, forced labor or child labor. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Andy Hall, a rights activist who has worked extensively with Burmese laborers in Thailand.
It is estimated that up to 90 percent of the more than 250,000 domestic workers in Thailand are from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, and experts say they are extremely vulnerable because they work in homes, hidden from public view, and have limited opportunity to reach out for help.
While statistics on underage domestic workers are hard to find, anecdotal evidence suggests they make up a significant portion.
Domestic workers have few rights in Thailand. A 2012 regulation offers them some protection, but fails to cap working hours or require overtime pay and social security protections.
Thailand also has yet to ratify the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) new Domestic Workers Convention and was heavily criticized in June when it voted against an ILO treaty to end forced labor—a decision it later reversed.
When Air’s case came to light after her escape in January 2013, her young age and the severe scars on her body and the entire length of her left arm shocked Thailand, but rights groups say her case is only one of many such abuses.
The Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), a Thai organization that helped bring the civil lawsuit against the couple who enslaved Air, described two young teenage domestic workers who were sexually abused by their employer, the son of a local politician in southern Thailand; an underage Lao worker who was forced to eat her own feces and had bathroom cleaner poured over her; and a Burmese 18-year-old who died after her employer doused her in gasoline and set her ablaze.
In the late afternoon of May 20, 2008, a Thai couple that Air’s family knew abducted her from her home in Kamphaeng Phet province in central Thailand.
“I started crying and kept asking them to send me back to my mum. But they said ‘no’ repeatedly and I became afraid,” Air told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Her family searched for her and asked the village head and police for help, but did not receive any assistance, Air’s father said.
Over the next five years, the couple enslaved and tortured the girl. The first time she managed to escape went awry after police sent her back to the couple—a claim that Lieutenant Colonel Naret Poolnai of the Kamphaeng Phet police denies. Her eventual escape last year was a fluke.
“On 31 January 2013, I was feeding the cat and the cat ran away. I was scared the couple would hit me so I followed the cat by climbing through the fence and realized I was outside the house,” she said.
A neighbor and teacher helped her, and she was sent to a government shelter in Phitsanulok province.
When her parents finally found her at the shelter, they were shocked. Her badly scalded left arm was no longer mobile, stuck to her tiny scar-marked frame.
“We were very happy to see she was still alive but also devastated,” Air’s father, who has been working in Thailand for 20 years, said outside their small home at the edge of a sugarcane field where they work as daily laborers.
“She was unblemished when she disappeared. When we saw her again, she was full of injuries,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
Despite Thailand’s reliance on migrant workers, rights groups say many officials are reluctant to protect them, extort money from them, and are simply insensitive.
After Air escaped, police were criticized for presenting her half-naked to a room full of largely male journalists and photographers to show the extent of her injuries.
To prevent cases like Air’s, police now work closely with the One Stop Crisis Center—which was set up six years ago by the government to help victims of domestic abuse and whose staff ultimately rescued Air, said Naret of the Kamphaeng Phet police.
The court victory and compensation have set up more hurdles for Air’s family, who would have to find out what assets the fugitive couple own so the government can seize and sell them, said Orawan Wimonrangkharat, the lawyer who represented Air.
It has been a year and a half since Air escaped her captors, and she remains stuck in the shelter because, staff say, she needs medical treatment and her parents would not be able to look after her because they are poor.
Her parents—who never left the sugarcane farm in hope that Air would one day make her way home—are biding their time in Thailand for her.
“We’re still here only because we’re waiting for Air to come back to us,” said Air’s mother.
“The day Air comes back home is the day we go back to Myanmar, no matter happens with the money,” her father added.