President Clinton this week told the International Labor Organization: "We must wipe from the Earth the most vicious forms of abusive child labor. Every single day, tens of millions of children work in conditions that shock the conscience."
He could have been talking about Sompop Rajdee, an 11-year-old crocodile tamer in Samut Prakarn, Thailand. Thaksina Khaikaew, reporting for Associated Press, said that entertainment for thousands of spectators a week is a part-time job for Rajdee, which helps his family survive the impact of the economic crisis in Thailand. Rajdee earns about $2.13 per day at the Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm outside Bangkok. Tips run several times that.
During the performance, Rajdee lies on his back on top of one crocodile, and wrestles with a smaller one in a pond. Impressed tourists toss coins into the ring when Rajdee kneels in front of a crocodile and gives it a kiss. "It is the most challenging part of the performance," Rajdee told Khaikaew. "I have to hold my breath to stay quiet. You do not want to make the crocodile feel disturbed at that moment."
Rajdee is one of five boys who take turns performing eight shows a day during school vacations and weekends. His mother told Khaikaew, "We do not talk him out of it, because he enjoys his job and he can save up his salary for schooling."
The young crocodile tamers help attract visitors to the farms, Uthen Youngprapakorn, its managing director and a son of the owner, told Khaikaew. The farm was started in 1950 and is now home to over 60,000 crocodiles. Though he views putting children on stage with crocodiles as an economic opportunity, child labor activists are appalled.
"This is not a job for children," said Sanphasith Khumpraphan, director of the Center for the Protection of Children's Rights. "It is against the labor law to hire children under 15, and it is worse when they are working with such uncontrollable and harmful creatures."
Khaikaew reports that enforcement of many laws is uneven in Thailand. According to Khumpraphan, child labor is increasingly being exploited during the economic crisis gripping Thailand since 1997.
"Safety concerns should begin at home," Khumpraphan said. "Their parents should have stopped their children from such dangerous jobs if they really care for them."