Is the key to happiness a daughter in Europe?

While Europe worries about ’trafficking’, Thai villages are still building their hopes on women’s migration and labour in Europe.
Sommai, Basit, Kae & Mong in the film ‘Love on Delivery’ (2007)

The day Dak left her village in Isaan, she picked up her in-laws’ radio and got on the bus to Nakhon Ratchasima.

Dak was 33 years old, her husband was a labour migrant in Saudi Arabia but drank the money away and sent none for her. Dak earned money as a day labourer and supported her four children, parents in law, her own parents and her terminally ill sister.

The pawnbroker in the city took the radio, and Dak spent the money on a bus ticket to Pattaya. Dak’s plan was to work at a beer bar, where she would find a foreigner to marry, so she would be able to go abroad and work. In Pattaya she met a Danish man.

During the first part of her time in Denmark Dak worked three day jobs as a cleaning assistant. Back then she would send more money back home, but after several family members has passed away, she only needs one job at a metal factory. Every month Dak sends 1.000 DKK (150 USD) to her family in Thailand.

Mon coughs, she’s sick today. She’s sitting on her bed in the basement of the brothel where she works, in a Danish provincial town. Around her are figures of Buddha, a makeup desk, a hot tub, flashing string lights and a soccer match on TV. The clinic is open all hours, but Mon is too tired to serve customers, so she keeps the door locked. Placed behind the entrance door are two sticks to defend herself with, if the customers are hostile. Mon wants to quit the job at the brothel, but finds factory work to be tough and poorly paid. Mon tells her family that she works as a cleaning assistant in Denmark. Every month she sends them 3.000 DKK.

Mon and Dak are not victims of trafficking as Thai women are often described in a European and Danish context. At least they don’t think so themselves. They are labour migrants and they are proud of that. They work and remit money to their family in Isaan, exactly like millions of other labour migrants all over the world. The European and the Danish debate on trafficking and sex work severely lack the perspective of the Thai women and their villages in Isaan. Instead what is needed in the debate is to keep the moral panic at a distance and deal with the global reality that makes Thai women travel to Denmark and other places. Some do it out of love and many others to find work – some at brothels – because they don’t make enough money in Thailand.

The equation looks like this: One working day in a Thai rice field pays 20 DKK. One working day at a multinational chicken factory pays 30 DKK. One working day at a metal factory in Denmark pays 500 DKK, and one working day at a Danish brothel pays 3.000-5.000 DKK. (to editor I have to revise these numbers)

A daily salary of 30 DKK provides a Thai family food on the table almost every day, but nothing else. Serious disease, accidents and unemployment are frequent disasters that 30 DKK a day won’t change. The 3.000 DKK that Mon sends from Denmark each month is the equivalent of three months’ salary in Isaan. Dak’s village – “Mo Ban” – is situated in Isaan. Mo Ban is a poor village that has benefitted economically from the female villagers travelling to Europe and sending back money. Out of the 400 citizens in Mo Ban 15 women have gone to Europe – nine of them live in Denmark. That means that no family in Mo Ban is unaffected by the women’s migration.

Dak was the first woman from Mo Ban who travelled to Europe and since then the village has changed. Dak’s cousin from Mo Ban says:

»Eight years ago there was only one car in the village, but now there’s at least ten cars and some of them are brand new four-wheel drive pickups. I remember that there was only a single two-story wooden house with blue tiled floors, the house was neat and well maintained. Eight years ago most people in Mo Ban spoke about that house as the most beautiful and modern house. Now there are at least 15 brand new concrete houses with glass windows, tiled floors, refrigerators and coloured roofs; some of them look like palaces. It’s unbelievable how fast things have happened«.

The only ones in Mo Ban who can afford fancy houses are families with a woman in Europe and the few rich land owners. Mo Ban is not unique. Most other villages in Isaan have in the last few years got what the villagers calls farang houses which are financed by contacts in one way or another with a farang.

Now it may seem like the families in Mo Ban are greedy for wealth and want to “sell” their daughters to the highest bidder. The families want part of the consumer goods of globalization, but they don’t know, how to handle it. »They simply can’t handle globalization«, as a social worker at a centre for victims of trafficking near Nakhon Ratchasima explained.

But the migrant women’s money is not only spent on consumption. Most of them go to parents’ stays in hospital and the schooling of siblings. The women’s migration works as a long-distance retirement saving and unemployment insurance. With their labour migration the women are doing the job of the Thai Government, so to speak. The paradox lies in the fact that in Denmark the Thai women are occupying the jobs, that few Danish people want. Meanwhile, the women contribute, either working at a metal factory or in the sex industry, to the development of their families and of Thailand. In short, Thailand receives a lot of benefits from these women without giving much back.

Seen from the perspective of the villages in Isaan the migrant women are thus kinds of heroines. However, that does not mean, that the women’s lives as migrants in Denmark are uncomplicated. While most of the women I meet are in well functioning marriages, sex work, tough factory work and domestic violence is the reality for others. But the economic success of the migrant women inspires the girls left behind in the village to travel.

In Europe and Denmark we’re trying eagerly to separate trafficking of women, sex work, labour migration and marriage migration. There is obviously a difference. Yet, as many other Thai women’s migration, Dak and Mon’s migration was shaped by global inequality, strict visa policies and a booming culture of migration in Thailand.