“I’m afraid of COVID-19, but I’m more afraid of starving.” These words from an Isaan sex worker who decided to keep working at Surat Thani’s Samui Island despite high infection rates. Although aware of the risk, as household breadwinners they have been left no choice but to accept the risk. Guest contributor Min Thalufa reports from Samui Island about the struggle of Isaan women in the era of COVID-19.

Story and photographs by Min Thalufa

On Samui Island in Surat Thani province, one of Thailand’s southern tourism paradises, there stands a bright pink building that houses a small Thai traditional massage shop.

The shop’s employees both work and live here. Inside, two one-meter wide single beds stand, awaiting customers.

It is well-known among the locals that it offers “that kind” of massage for foreign tourists who seek a “happy ending.”

Inside the shop is Nan, a 42-year-old from Udon Thani, the owner. She employs two other masseuses, who are also from Isaan. In the late afternoon, they sit and wait for customers in the rather unvisited shop, as the infection rate of the new COVID-19 variant continues to spike.

“I’m a bit worried about the new COVID-19 variant too, but I have to keep the place open. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have any income,” Nan explains why the shop remains open despite an increasing risk of infection. “My parents and daughter are waiting for the money from me.”

The pandemic has impacted Nan and her life choices. When the coffee shop she opened in her hometown went out of business due to the economic slump last year, a friend suggested she open a massage shop in Samui.

She ended up resettling on the island in March last year, after seeing that opening a massage shop there might hold some hope.

Despite the pandemic, Nan’s traditional massage skill (including the “happy ending” special service) managed to regularly draw customers.

“I never thought I would be doing this kind of work, but I get a lot of money from it. I can provide for my family. Here, there are foreign clients who live in retirement, and there are some other regular customers.”

For informal sexworkers, extra earnings for a “happy ending”

Nan is both owner and masseuse. Most clients hear about her shop by word of mouth. The rate of the “special massage” is nearly 10 times higher than the regular service. It ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 baht, depending on what each customer agrees to pay.

According to Nan, her staff pays the shop 300 baht for each gig, for venue rental. The rest is theirs to keep.

“Some days the girls don’t have a single client. Some couldn’t stay on because there was no income,” Nan says, sighing. “But some can’t find anything to do back home, so they have to stay here. At least there’s still something to do.”

“Better than nothing”

When Nan was 11 years old, her home burnt down and her family was left with next to nothing.

“Back then, my family really scrambled to pay off the debt with the Bank for Agriculture until we went broke,” she says. “We had to get a mortgage on the sugarcane fields we’d inherited. But still, we couldn’t get back on our feet.”

That was one of the reasons that made Nan determined not to experience such financial desperation again. She set up a business and tried to do something. “It’s better than having nothing to eat, nothing to provide for my child,” she says.

Nan’s life plan is uncertain, as the pandemic has made it difficult to see a clear future. “Actually, I first just wanted to stay in Samui until the pandemic was over. But I want to move to Germany to be with my ex-boyfriend because he says I can go back anytime. At the same time, I also want to go back home and farm. I’ll have to wait and see.”

A string of unfortunate experiences in love has made Nan hesitant about starting a new relationship. She had married a Thai man when she was 17 and they had two children together. After divorcing, she dated several foreigners, but none of them lasted. She’s anxious about accepting someone new into her life. So she feels she needs to seriously mull over going back to her German ex-boyfriend.

Nan doesn’t think much about herself these days. The most important thing is the future of her daughter who aspires to work as a cabin crew and who needs the money to pursue that dream. Nan was unable to accomplish her own ambition of becoming a teacher. She wants her daughter’s dream to come true. So Nan is driven to do whatever it takes to earn an income.

More afraid of starving than getting COVID-19

Standing not far away from Nan’s massage shop is a bar, its fast-beating music blasting to entertain the few customers at the bar.

As night falls, Nong (not her real name), a Khon Kaen native in her 20s, sits beside a male tourist. While appearing to be engaged in lively conversation, she’s constantly pouring drinks for him.

Nong acknowledges that this line of work puts her at a high risk of contracting COVID-19, but she says, “I’m afraid of COVID-19, but I’m more afraid of starving.” ’s more worried about having no money than she is about the health risk.

“When I was young, I fantasized about what it would have been like if I’d been born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” she says of her childhood dream. “I wanted to be a high-class girl with diamonds, gems, jewellry.”

Nong left Khon Kaen to study at a university in Bangkok, but because of the pandemic, it wasn’t required to be in a classroom. She started skipping some classes, but attended just enough to be able to maintain her status as a student.

“I’ve been working here for the last few years because I want the money. I earn 1,000 baht a day minimum, and a maximum of 4,000 baht, depending on how much I can charm my clients. I get tens of thousands of baht a month,” she says

A customer-less bar in Samui in January 2022.

Life as a “sideline” girl  

Working as a bar girl, Nong gets to meet many people. Sometimes interested customers ask her to “sideline” with them [a euphemism for being hired for sex] so she has the chance to earn some extra money. Customers had bought her jewelry, just like she’d dreamt of having. But all her precious jewelry had been stolen.

“Sometimes I fall for my clients as well, because some are very sweet. But I know that these men just want to have some casual fun and be done with it,” Nong says. “I used to be ashamed of letting friends know what I do for a living, but what can I do? Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to feed myself.”

Besides her personal expenses, Nong has to provide for her two children who now live with her parents. She gave birth to her first child when she was sixteen.

Following two failed relationships, Nong barely dares to make any plans for her future. But there is another dream she hopes to see come true.

“My kids know about my job. I want them to have a future, have money, so they won’t have to struggle as I have,” she says.

Little choice but to facing the risk

Before COVID-19, Samui used to host over 2.5 million visitors a year, bringing in more than five billion baht to the tourism industry. Now, despite the quarantine-waiver program Samui Plus in place since last July, the island has not attracted many fewer tourists than hoped.

Due to the financial strain amid the pandemic-induced economic downturn, these two Isaan women, Nan and Nong, find themselves in the same circumstances. They have to continue working at their own risk, without knowing when the situation will improve.

Khon Kaen University’s professor of Sociology and Anthropology Patcharin Lapanun says that such women as Nan and Nong who have to work closely with mostly foreign clients suffer a heavy toll on their mental health: anxiety builds from both a fear of infection and the stress of having less income.

Khon Kaen University’s Patcharin Lapanun: Economic pressures forced women with few choices to put their health at risk 

Women in these circumstances “face many aspects of risks, whether financial or health, but they cannot afford to stop working because they need to provide for their families,” says the researcher, author of Love, Money And Obligation: Transnational Marriage in a Northeastern Thai Village, a book exploring the lives of Isaan women who married foreign men.

Patcharin further says that income is a top priority for people who leave rural hometowns from across the country to work in the sex industry. They leave with hope that they will be able to send money to their families. Pressure therefore follows when they earn less, and it inevitably impacts their relationships with relatives.

Returning home is not an option 

Although the infection rates are not slowing down, especially in tourism areas, Patcharin says these women are unlikely to return to their hometown, partly because there’s no job opportunities. There is a longstanding inequality caused by the absence of job creation and access to education in rural areas. Therefore, there are limited chances to go into other lines of work.

Another reason that Patcharin found common among the girls is a fear of getting stigmatized because of what they do. When conducting research for her book in Pattaya, Patcharin learned that the parents of sex workers rarely knew the true nature of their daughter’s work. At least at the time, sex work carried with it a stigma. The women never told their parents and even if they lost their jobs, they feared returning home as their parents may learn the truth. If the parents knew, “it meant other people in the community knew. What would other people think of their family?”

There are many risks in getting into this industry, says Patcharin, especially during the pandemic. Although the work can generate high financial benefits, both for the workers’ family and the country’s tourism sector, these women are still branded and looked down upon by society.

Read Thai version here

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