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【ACS Institute 2023 -Day 5- 8/14- Activity Report】 Sirijit Sunanta - Labour conditions and its (de)colonisation in Thailand

2023-11-14

Aug 14th – Tourism, mobilities and colonization

Title: Labour conditions and its (de)colonisation in Thailand

By KWOK Man Yee, Sophie, Master’s student of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Program, National Tsing Hua University

 

 

 

This panel starts with Sirijit Sunanta’s presentation titled “Gendered opportunities and constraints of low-end wellness and recreational tourism workers in Thailand”. The focus of her talk is on gendered labour in the Thai tourism industry, particularly on frontline, recreational tourism. Sunanta points out that the critical aspects of tourism, from the tourism industry to global power inequality, can speak in the language of colonisation and decolonisation.

 

Given that tourism is a key economic driver in Thailand, Sunanta’s collaborative research aims to study life chances, aspirations, and well-being of people in the low-end tourism sector under the Thai context and the opportunity structure of small-scale tourism enterprises, where Thai-ness is marketed to foreigners as a representation of the country, as well as the mediating of Thai-ness in the UK through immigrant entrepreneurship. Hua Hin was chosen as the case study due to its importance in the long history of domestic and international tourism, particularly its reputation in wellness and recreational tourism. The shifting identity of Hua Hin from a tourist destination for upper-class in the early 21st century to a more popularized holiday destination with a hundred massage parlours now is also worth noting.

 

Studying the relationship between women and tourism is crucial because tourism is a feminized sector in which feminine qualities are seen as the requirements of tourism service work. On the other hand, tourism also provides economic opportunities, empowerment, economic independence, and allows female workers to take care of their family members.

 

To contextualize tourism under Thai economic structure, Sunanta presents data which shows that tourism and related business account for 20% of Thai GDP and that the Thai economy has seen a shift from agriculture to service sector, particularly tourism. The mobility of labour is led by the higher wages in the service sector that attract people to change jobs.

 

A key element that Thai tourism relies on is Thai-ness, or the image of Thai hospitality, which includes qualities like being feminine, gentle, and servile. Thai culture is also associated with the senses of touch and taste, from Thai massage and Thai food respectively. All these contribute to the so-called Thai-ness that has become a branding for Thailand in the global tourism market as employed widely by the state, private sector, and tourism workers. However, Thai tourism has not always been the same. There was a shift from exotic/erotic tourism to health and wellness tourism, partly thanks to the Thai government’s effort to change the negative image of sex tourism in Thailand through a new branding strategy. Aiming to attract tourists from wealthy countries who are able and willing to spend more, the strategy focuses on quality instead of quantity of tourists.

 

With a focus on the people who are invisible in the Thai low-end wellness and recreational tourism industry, Sunanta’s project studies frontline tourism workers, mainly masseuses and gold caddies, who are predominantly women with low educational levels and from modest socioeconomic backgrounds.

 

First, golf caddies, predominantly women from the vicinity area, are attracted to the job because higher income and greater level of independence can be found there, compared to factory or agricultural work. Despite that, there are drawbacks too. The caddies do not have fixed salaries and face income uncertainty due to the fluctuation between high and low seasons; they also are not included in formal social security schemes, nor unionized, meaning that they have limited access to formal credits but only benefits provided depending on good wills. Being more like hospitality workers rather than sports assistants, caddies have to serve and attend to the needs of golfers, who are like their “boss”, building a hierarchical relationship between them. There are also cases of sexual harassment. Although hierarchical, such a relationship can sometimes be positive. For example, caddies get to learn foreign languages and cultures, or even receive gifts and financial help from regular customers.

 

As for masseuses, who are of similar backgrounds as golf caddies, are often domestic migrants who go to work in Hua Hin. The forms of employment vary among individuals – some work under a particular massage parlour, some are freelancers, some are hotel employees, and so on, but no matter which way of employment they are under, most of them do not have regular incomes. Like golf caddies, many of them are not covered by social security schemes, or do not even have a minimum daily wage set. They also face problems like injuries due to the over-using of body, sexual harassment regardless of their intention to provide professional service, and stigmatization associated with sex work. Yet, they enjoy flexibility and independence from the job, as opposed to the much-constrained work in factories or as salespersons. To further develop their careers, some masseuses start their own parlours, while some seek opportunities to work abroad.

 

To conclude, tourism is important for providing work opportunities and supporting women financially, but the uncertain income, lack of social protection, stigmatization and sexualization are what we should pay attention to. The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for the tourism sector as it further displays the vulnerability of the sector and the precarity of workers, this invites us to think about the sustainability of tourism development.

 

The second session of the panel is led by Wikanda Promkhuntong, whose presentation is about global screen production, in relation to mobilities and decolonisation. Promkhuntong’s research interest in this topic is led by the question of “how can we describe and talk about production culture from the point of view of the people who are working in the industry in the Global South”, forming the first part of the session – Global South and the legacy of runaway production. The runaway here refers to the moving of film shootings from Hollywood to Europe in the 1960s, and then to Asia in the 1980s, because of the lower wages and currencies in those countries. Looking at the runaway from cultural studies and political economy perspectives, the aim is to unfold the complex relations of the “new international division of cultural labor” (coined by Miller et al.) and its impact on Hollywood workers. Hence, studies try to move away from stories about the production through the lens of directors, producers, or stars, but to carry out an ethnographic study of Hollywood below-the-line. In writing about the experience of work production, Promkhuntong uses the film set as a site that reveals not only a sense of colonisation but also a site that can enrich and liberate the workers, in the sense of how they negotiate a fair relationship. To interrogate the subject from the South, it is important to look at the knowledge production, agency, and culture within, as well as peripheral workers by examining set-diaries, archival materials and qualitative studies of local labour and sub-contractors.

 

Back in the 1980s, it was novel for Thai people to work in a foreign production team due to the limited access to contact and language barrier. Having gained access to a diary of such a worker, active translation (of a translated work) and cultural reading are required; and from the reading, Promkhuntong sees the tips and tricks that the worker employed to negotiate between the foreign crew and local crew who does not speak English, as well as how he had to be the middle person between locals like venue owners, crew members and so on. There was a constant thinking of culture and cultural differences. Other than that, there is a record of how he negotiated for money and finance, in terms of equal wages and getting the promised amount, which at the same time shows the sense of care that he had for local people. We can also see parts of the diary as a reportage of gossip and rumours that spread across Thailand about the possible Baht that film production might bring to the Thai people. All these materials are valuable because they are not something that we would find in a standard English language textbook on how to make films.

 

Another aspect to look at is the past and present geopolitics and the possibilities of tourism that film production could bring about. Promkhuntong raises the example of The Railway Hotel, the first seaside resort with long heritage and legacy, a lot of which was demolished because of the contentious Thai policy. It was “accidentally” saved when it stood as a filming location and then turned into a colonial nostalgic hotel. This can serve as an illustration of how colonial legacies could be remembered and structured with the help of film production and allow us to think beyond Hollywood money-making tourism.

 

The last dimension explored in this session is labour consciousness and unionization. During the COVID-19 pandemic, filmmaking became very hard, yet the industry needed to make films; hence one issue that we cannot avoid talking about is precarity. Precarity became an even more severe issue for local staff during COVID-19 because of the absence of contracts and support, the unstandardised fees, and the lack of regulations and legal support by the industry. Since there is no union, workers have less power to negotiate for benefits. However, the pandemic did lead to precarious pride and participatory activism that had never been seen before: workers started to come together and form networks to tell stories by making videos, doing Podcasts, or writing. Promkhuntong believes that this will continue.

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