How The Pandemic Has Upended The Lives Of Thailand's Sex Workers
Many of them left rural areas to earn their living in the sex trade and send money home to help their families. COVID-19 restrictions have changed all that.
Mos, 26, was a "moneyboy" — a sex worker — at a gay bar in the Thai tourist hub of Pattaya. For him, it was a dream come true. Now the pandemic has put his dream on hold.
Mos grew up in a poor province on Thailand's northeastern border, eating fish from the river and leaves foraged from the forest. He wanted to eat pork and pizza.
When he graduated from high school, he moved to Pattaya and became a sex worker. He says the job was fun, and the pay was great. He saved up enough money to build a cement house for his family in the countryside. He promised his younger siblings he would send them to college.
"I'm very proud of that," he says.
Indeed, for people in rural, landlocked provinces, Thailand's tourist hubs offered good-paying jobs for those otherwise facing a life of tending rice paddies and digging up cassava roots — the lives they grew up with and their parents still toiled in.
Mos is one of an estimated 200,000 to more than 1 million sex workers in Thailand, including full-time sex workers affiliated with bars, freelancers supplementing their regular income with occasional prostitution and migrants from bordering countries.
Sex work is practiced openly in the country, but it is illegal and subject to fines or, in rare cases, imprisonment. About 24,000 people were arrested, fined or prosecuted in 2019, according to the Royal Thai Police. Mos and many of the people we interviewed for this article asked that their full names not be used. In many parts of Thailand, the family name has been shamed by association with a stigmatized, illegal business, and individuals have been disowned by their families or ostracized by their community.
Working in the bars of the red-light district pays more than many office jobs or other service work that the women and men in Thailand's sex industry would otherwise qualify for. Sex work has allowed them to save money, buy themselves luxuries and support their parents and grandparents in retirements of ease.
While revenue for underground activities is difficult to measure, a 2015 analysis by Havocscope, a research company that studies the black market, estimated the Thai sex trade to be worth $6.4 billion a year, or about 3% of the country's gross domestic product.
But now the international sex industry has come to a halt.
It's not because Thailand is seeing high numbers of coronavirus cases. Since the start of the pandemic, Thailand has had about 20,000 confirmed cases and 77 deaths.
Rather, it's the strict measures Thailand has taken to keep the coronavirus at bay.
In March and April, Thailand closed its borders and canceled commercial flights because of the global pandemic. The country's tourism industry — which is entwined with the sex worker industry — collapsed. (While prostitution exists for the domestic Thai market, it is separate from the red-light districts of Thailand's tourist hubs, which cater almost exclusively to foreign visitors.)
More than 10 months later, the country remains largely closed to international tourism. A new wave of infections within Thailand in December has led to renewed lockdowns in several provinces. Pattaya was declared a maximum control zone on Dec. 31 after 144 cases were recorded in the district, closing most public venues, including bars. The country began lifting restrictions in late January.
In April, with rent in Pattaya adding up while he earned no money, Mos piled into a car with a few friends and went back to his hometown, where he now helps his parents sell papaya salad at a street side stall. By October, he had run down his savings.
He longs to go back to his job in Pattaya. "I would love to," Mos said. But he watches the news in Europe and the U.S. with dismay; deadly second waves and new lockdowns mean Thailand would not be opening its borders to tourists any time soon.
According to government data analyzed by Dr. Yongyuth Chalamwong, research director for the Thailand Development Research Institute, an estimated 1.6 million people have returned from Thailand's tourist areas to the countryside. Those who found a way to stay — by piling into shared rented rooms, sleeping in hallways and cutting their meals to one or two a day — are barely hanging on.
At 11 a.m. at a bar on Soi 6, Pattaya's main red-light strip, the dancers who had moved into the spare rooms upstairs were just waking up, bleary eyed and untangling themselves from rumpled blankets printed with Disney princesses or SpongeBob SquarePants. The women were still in big T-shirts and basketball shorts or loose cotton dresses, their platform heels stacked on the steps of the hot pink-painted stairwell. A washing machine filled with last night's uniform of short shorts and crop tops rumbled in the hall.
Downstairs at the bar, the metal gate was rolled halfway up as the dancers got ready for another shift. One woman flat-ironed another's hair as she ate a breakfast of hot noodle soup. Others perched on barstools in front of the mirrors, applying makeup while Thai pop songs played from their phones.
N., 28, who asked that only her first initial be used, says that before the pandemic, "the men would just walk in." They'd buy the women drinks, for which they would earn a 50-baht ($1.60) commission. Perhaps a patron might hire one of them for the evening. On a good night, these sex workers could make as much as 3,000 to 6,000 baht, $100 to $200.
The night before, a Friday, most of them had made no money at all.
They were all working harder and earning less, N. says. There were about a dozen women at each of the Soi 6 bars that managed to stay open, fewer than before, but far outnumbering the foreign customers, most of whom were expats living in Pattaya or visitors from Bangkok.
"Boys, boys, boys, where are you going," the women said as a couple of men strolled by. "I love you!" they yelled at strangers. They pretended to swoon and called every passing man handsome. One woman, tilting on her stilettos, tugged with her full might at a man's arm to pull him in and perhaps oblige him to buy her a shot. He wrestled his arm free and walked on.
Rob, a 59-year-old Australian retiree and regular patron of the bars of Soi 6, who asked not to use his last name because of the sex industry's illegality, says only about a quarter of the bars are open and a quarter of the women have come back to work in them. Retirees on fixed pensions like himself can't make up for the droves of lost international clientele.
"I'm trying my hardest," Rob says, but there's only so much a man can drink — nor does he have the money to hire the women from the bars.
Rob says he can't compete with the clients that those in the industry call "Two-Week Millionaires" — foreign sex tourists.
Timmy, the bar's British manager, who asked that his last name not be used, says they're now left with "Cheap Charlies," low-income expats who sit at the bar nursing a Coke Zero, leering, while declining to buy the dancers drinks.
"It's getting deader and deader," Timmy says.
As much as tourist cities like Pattaya are suffering, the strict measures at the border have been effective in helping to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Thailand. Jessica Vechbanyongratana, a labor economist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, emphasized that keeping the borders closed at the expense of the tourism industry allowed the rest of the economy to reopen. Tourism is a large part of the economy, she says, "but it is not the entire economy."
Before the round of new restrictions that began in late December, which are now in the process of being lifted, Thailand's strict measures had allowed a level of normalcy to return to everyday life. Outside tourist areas, offices and government buildings were open and the malls and markets were crowded. In Bangkok, the capital, the streets were clogged with traffic, and the subway system was packed with riders. At bars and restaurants, people gathered freely.
The sense of safety is something a majority of Thais are keen to protect. An October 2020 poll by the National Institute for Development Administration, an educational institution, found that 57% of Thais did not want to open the country to tourism, another 20% slightly agreed that it would bring money in, but stressed the need for restrictions. And 22% agreed with opening the country to help in the economy during the pandemic.
"People who have nothing to do with tourism would not understand the need to open the country," says Pornthip Hirankate, vice president of marketing at the Tourism Council of Thailand, an industry group. She is referring to Thai citizens who do not work in the tourism industry and benefit from keeping the borders closed.
All this has left those in the international sex industry to find ways to make do. Some have moved their services online, or turned to the domestic market with new small businesses, like selling food.
At another bar a few doors down, one of the dancers propped a cellphone up against an overstuffed makeup case surrounded with half-drunk cups of bubble tea. It was mid-afternoon in Europe — prime time for the women to start performing Facebook Lives. They twisted into the camera, their skin tinged hot pink by the bar's neon lights, hoping to entice a man idly watching on the other side of the world to buy them a shot, paid through PayPal. It's money, but not nearly as much as before.
In Pattaya, the word "Covid" is drifting into a shorthand for economic hardship. Why did they move out of their apartments and into the rooms upstairs from the bar? "Covid." When one of the dancers shook a ceramic piggy bank I had just bought from a street vendor and heard no coins rattling inside, she laughed. "No money! Covid."
M., 37, used to work in an office, but she earned more as a topless dancer in one of Pattaya's go-go bars, and by taking on sex work. Before the pandemic she was saving money to buy more farmland for her family and dreaming of her own rubber tree plantation.
Now, she says, "It's all upside down. Covid." She wired 3,000 baht ($100) she earned in the previous two weeks back to her mother and son, leaving her with 100 baht ($3.30), relying on the hope of making some money that night. If it went on like this, she would have to move back to the province and help her mother tend their small plot of rubber trees.
Vechbanyongratana, the labor economist, says that for people in agricultural areas, migrating to jobs in tourism or manufacturing has long been a strategy for families to earn money. In an economic crisis, like what's unfolding now, "the agricultural household can act as a buffer" against economic shocks. As in previous crises, people who migrated to the cities for work in higher-paying industries can return home to simple lives on their family farms to weather times of hardship.
Three hundred and fifty miles north of Bangkok, in Isaan, a landlocked district of rice paddies and sugarcane fields in northeastern Thailand, a 26-year-old woman whose first name is the letter "A," sat on the floor of her family's porch peeling betel nut and grinding limestone to make into traditional Thai betel chew for her grandmother. Since A moved back in February, she's been spending her time taking care of her grandmother and helping her parents and cousins in the fields.
A moved to Phuket when she was 17. With the help of her aunt, who worked at a massage parlor, A got a job as a dancer in one of the island's bars, where she worked until she met her boyfriend, a German man who sent her a monthly stipend that allowed her to work at a souvenir shop instead, where she made less money.
A's boyfriend was visiting Thailand in February and March as the scale of the pandemic started to unfold. As a foreigner, the Thai people they met eyed him suspiciously. They asked her how long he'd been in the country, trying to determine if he was a disease vector. When she brought him back to her family home in Isaan, A's mother decamped to the local temple, afraid she would catch COVID-19 from him.
A knows the hardship the pandemic inflicts on people like her. Her friends, mostly dancers in Phuket who'd lost their jobs, flooded her with Facebook messages, desperate and asking for money. The souvenir shop where she worked shut down.
Some of her friends signed up for emergency relief from the government, though that ran out after three months — and many sex workers with informal jobs did not qualify. Others took donations of food from charities, but within a few months that ran out, too. Most are just making do with less in their home provinces, setting up small shops selling milk tea or grilled fish balls, making 100 baht ($3.30) in a day when they used to make $100.
A's boyfriend, who went back to Germany in March, had to cut her stipend from about $1,000 a month to $150 every week or two, as his business struggled. Her backup plan of opening a food stand in front of her family home stalled; she only had enough money to buy three of the four cement posts she needs to build it, and they were stacked in the yard, muddy, vines beginning to climb up their sides.
Still, A supports Thailand's strict measures against the coronavirus. "It's better to close the border," she says. While she understands that it's tough and she pities the people who have lost their jobs, she prefers safety to the money tourists would bring in.
And at least there is an option for many of the sex workers from rural parts of the country, she says: "They can go back home."
Additional reporting by Suchada Phoisaat in Bangkok and Pattaya; and Hathairat Phaholtap in Isan.
Aurora Almendralis an American journalist based in Southeast Asia with an interest in politics, climate change, migration and economics. Her work has been recognized with multiple awards, including from the Overseas Press Club of America and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.
Allison Joyce is an American photojournalist with over a decade of experience working in the United States and internationally. She covers news and human rights stories throughout the region with a special focus on gender issues. In 2019 she was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass, and her work has been honored with multiple awards, including from POYI (Pictures of the Year International), South Asian Journalists Association and the NYPPA (New York Press Photographers Association).
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