Sunday, 17 March 2013

A chance for change: young people learn a trade

This article was first published in the Bangkok Post on 19 January 2013.

At a university dormitory in Bangkok, 21 young people from disadvantaged communities line up to pull the name of a top hotel out of a bag. Behind them, teams of hotel staff in uniforms wait to meet their new apprentices. For 19-year-old Daojai, a cabbage farmer from a Mon hill tribe village in Petchaburi province, it’s an exciting moment. She reaches in and pulls out a piece of paper saying ‘JW Marriot’ and her new life begins.

Although  quiet and  shy, Daojai  is  talkative once she gets going. She dresses simply and has a simple haircut, unlike the more fashion-conscious girls from urban areas. “This is only my second time to Bangkok,” she says. “I arrived yesterday by bus with my friend. I’m very excited to be here. I wanted to go to university but my parents couldn’t afford to send me. I’ll need to pay my own way. Working in a hotel will help me do that.”

The Youth Career Development Programme (YCDP) has been running since the mid-1990s. It was initially developed by UNICEF Thailand and Pan Pacific Hotel Bangkok as an innovative way of tackling child trafficking and sexual exploitation by providing employment for at-risk children. The scheme was soon expanded to other hotels, a bank and a hospital.

“This is an excellent example of how private companies and an organisation like UNICEF can work together to change the lives of children and young people,” says UNICEF Thailand Deputy Representative Andrew Morris. “Not only has it changed the lives of the young people who went through YCDP, but also the lives of their brothers, sisters and families because of the money they have sent back home for their education.”

Tanai’s kitchen
Daojai working in the kitchen of JW Marriot hotel.
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/Jingjai N
A few weeks later, Daojai was hard at work in the kitchen of the JW Marriot hotel on Ploen Chit Road in  central Bangkok, a grand building with high ceilings and wood panelled walls. The corridors echoed with the clip clop of heels on marble floors and the tinkle of spoons on saucers. Daojai was wearing a starched white kitchen uniform and preparing food for dinner. Working alongside an experienced chef, she chopped vegetables, mixed sauces and put trays of food in an industrial sized microwave. Afterwards, she cleaned the surfaces and kitchen utensils.

“Daojai is a quiet girl but she’s motivated and works hard,” says Chef Tanai Jitmanowan. “I’ve seen her progress over the last month. She’s more fluid in preparing the food. If she wanted to, she could be a chef herself in five years’ time. JW Marriot is famous for its food so it could be a good career for her.”

Florist Rojana agrees that Daojai is a promising student. “We’ve had lots of weddings at the hotel lately so there have been many opportunities for Daojai to learn how to arrange flowers,” she says. “I show her which colours suit different rooms and events, how to clean the vase and prepare the flowers. She’s active and a fast learner – I only have to show her how to do something once. Sometimes she stays behind after work to help out.”

Travelling light

Daojai’s friend Duang in the room they share at Ramkhamhaeng University
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/Andy Brown
After work, Daojai returns to Ramkhamhaeng University, where she shares a dormitory room with two other Mon girls from her village, Duang and May. It’s a small, bare room with bunk beds and a single wardrobe. The girls don’t have many possessions – just a few clothes and a book of short stories. But the rooms are bright and clean, and a cool breeze blows in from the lush, green gardens outside.

“The first week, I thought I’d made the wrong decision coming here,” Daojai says, looking back on her first month in the programme. “The trainers made me work very hard. Once I had to unblock a toilet by putting my hand down it. But after that I thought ‘I have to fight for this’ and it’s got better since.”

Daojai works a six day week at the hotel and spends most of her free time with Duang and May. “We do everything together,” she continues. “We go shopping, eat dinner and gossip. We used to buy food at the street stalls but now we go to Big C because it’s cheaper. My daily allowance is 120 Baht but I try to spend just 50 to 100 Baht.”

When Daojai gets lonely, she calls her mother  on her mobile phone. “I don’t want to cry so I keep my problems to myself,” she says. “Mum tells me to take care of myself and always take an umbrella when I go out. She says if I can’t cope I can come home. But I want to stay and complete the course.”

Home is where the heart is
Daojai with her mother in the cabbage fields outside Tab Berk
© UNICEF Thailand/2012/Andy Brown
Half way through the course, Daojai went home for a weekend to visit her family in Tab Berk. The village sits upon a  ridge at the top of the mountain range. The main industry in the area is cabbage farming, and the fields were full of women spraying crops with pesticide, protective masks over their faces. Men carried cabbages down from the fields in woven baskets on their backs. The air was cool and fresh, and full of the sounds of cocks crowing and crickets in the trees.

Daojai’s wooden house is set upon a bed of  packed earth. There is one large room with a bed in the corner and a kitchen out the back. The family’s few belongings hang from nails that have been pounded into the  walls. The only sign of modernity is a large TV attached to a satellite dish outside. “I was born here in Tab Berk,” Daojai says. “At first I lived with my parents and grandparents. When I was older, I went to boarding school in Petchaburi City.”

Life is hard in the mountains, but Daojai enjoys being with her family. “When I’m home I wake up at 5 a.m. and help Mum cook and do the laundry. At 6 a.m. I go out with Dad and work all day in the fields. In the evening, I help Mum cook and then I go to sleep. I miss my Mum most of all. Here, I see her face every morning when I wake up.”

The next morning, Daojai said goodbye to her parents and grandparents. On the way back, she stopped at the local temple to make an offering. “I asked the spirits to keep me safe in Bangkok and help me complete my studies,” she says.

Career development

Over the years, the YCDP has provided over 1,500 young people like Daojai with training and a career. Today, there  over 40 in Thailand participate in the programme. Some of the early apprentices have gone on to pursue successful careers in the hotel industry.

“I was in a hotel recently making a booking for a friend of mine,” UNICEF’s  Morris says. “When they realised I was from UNICEF, they said ‘we have some of your YCDP graduates in our senior staff at the hotel’. So we know that they’ve done very well.”


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Jenny, it was fun to work on too. Joyce came with us to Tab Berk and we nearly froze because we'd forgotten it was cold at night in the mountains!

  2. Great post, Andy! So inspiring!