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Travel and job in Malaysia for women from Thailand

The Foundation for Women in Thailand

The Foundation for Women in Thailand

Expectations and understanding of the process of recruitment and job placement, and of the work they would be doing in Malaysia, differed greatly among the women we interviewed:

At age twenty-three, when Bun was asked to go to Malaysia, she was heavily in debt and agreed to go in order to pay back her debt and make some additional money. But when she arrived in Malaysia, she found that she had been misled about the conditions and financial arrangements of her employment. "I left for Malaysia in August 1994 with the agreement that I could either work in a restaurant or as a prostitute as I wished... The day after I arrived, I was ordered to strip dance on a table at a snack bar and play stripping games with the customers." In addition, Bun found herself saddled with an outrageous and unexpected "debt." "I didn't know I was going to be in debt US$39,000. I only knew that I would have to work for free for two or three months."

Faa, who worked at a sewing shop in Udon Thani province before going to Malaysia, explained to Women organisation that she knew she was going to work as a sex worker, but not that she would have to work off a debt. At nineteen, she arrived in Malaysia to find that she had to work every day for the next five months without compensation as she struggled to pay the money she "owed."

The Thai man who recruited Phan to work in Malaysia told her that she would have to pay off a debt of 100,000 baht (US$4,000) and that it would take her about two or three months to do so. "I said I wanted to go, but I didn't have any documents. They said, 'no problem,' they could arrange all the documents. I saw so many other girls going to Malaysia, so I agreed." Later, when Phan arrived in Malaysia, she found that her debt was more than seven times the amount to which she had agreed.

In the interviews Women organisation conducted, the majority of the women indicated that they knew they would be working as sex workers in Malaysia, and some had already worked in this industry in Thailand. Others were promised jobs as waitresses or factory workers, though in almost all cases they were placed into the sex industry when they arrived. Saalaa found that of the 170 Thai women who stayed at the shelter from 1992 to 1995, 158 had worked as indebted sex workers in Malaysian snack bars. And while a majority of these women knew that they would be working in restaurants or bars with at least the option to perform sex work, only a quarter of the women understood that they would have to sell sexual services, and a third expected work outside of the entertainment industry altogether.

Siriporn Skrobanek, Executive Secretary of the Foundation for Women (FFW) in Thailand, told Women organisation that according to FFW's research, when women from Thailand first began migrating to Malaysia in the late 1980s, only about ten percent of the women knew they were going into sex work.


Women's travel and job

Women's travel and job

Before it has become more difficult to deceive women about the type of the work they will do in Malaysia, but Siriporn Skrobanek explained that recruiters are increasingly targeting women in northern villages who do not have previous experience of working in the Thai sex industry, because they consider such women easier to deceive about the financial arrangements and other aspects of the work.

None of the women whom Women organisation interviewed had fully understood the economics of the situation they were entering, nor had any clear idea of the kind of conditions they would face. While some women were told that they would be in debt, the amount of the debt and/or the amount of time it would take to repay the debt was misrepresented.

Finally, women did not have a clear understanding of the legal implications of their migration. Agents handled women's travel and job placement arrangements, often obtaining falsified documentation for them and always providing escorts to accompany them on their trip. Women were given only as much information as they needed to get through immigration procedures. In many cases, women traveled to Malaysia legally, on their own passports with Malaysian tourist or transit visas, and they did not understand that their visa status prohibited them from working.

Furthermore, women were not told how debt repayment calculations would be determined. This was left to the discretion of their employers in Malaysia, who routinely used the woman's "debt" to extract labor under abusive and coercive conditions. And the methods of coercion that employers regularly applied to ensure that women fully repaid their "debts" were, of course, not described by recruiters or agents.

Other women traveled to Malaysia on falsified passports, in which their name and/or travel history had been changed, but they did not necessarily know that false documentation had been prepared for them until after they arrived at the airport in Thailand, or even later. In other cases, women were told to memorize fake names and stories before they left Thailand, so they realized that they would be deceiving the airport authorities. But in these cases too, the arrangements were made by the agents, and women were required to follow the agents' instructions.

Once a woman had agreed to go to Malaysia and an agent had begun to make preparations on her behalf, the woman was in the agent's debt; she was not allowed to change her mind. Moreover, the women traveled under conditions of deception; the promises of their recruiters and agents had not yet been proven false.


Illegal work in Malaysia

Illegal work in Malaysia

Many women Women organisation interviewed spoke of their surprise and confusion regarding their legal status and Malaysian laws in general:

Jaem, who entered Malaysia at age sixteen, stated, "I didn't know the law and I didn't know that coming to Malaysia and doing this kind of work was illegal. Before I went to Malaysia, nobody told me that it was illegal. I don't know Malaysian law at all. Now I understand that whatever Thai people do in Malaysia is illegal."

"I didn't know anything before I went to Malaysia. The agents never told me that I would be legal or that I would be illegal. They just took me to make a passport and told me that I would work at a restaurant as a waitress with a good income... I didn't know Malaysian law. But after I arrived in Malaysia I knew that I was illegal, so I just hid and escaped when police came," explained Aye, who went to Malaysia in 1992 at age twenty-seven, after having been a sex worker since the age of fourteen or fifteen in Thailand.

Jo, who traveled to Malaysia in 1990 at age twenty-three after seven years of sex work in Thailand, confided, "I never knew the law in Malaysia or even in Thailand. When I arrived in Malaysia I knew that I had come illegally, so I was afraid of being arrested. They (her bosses at the snack bar) said that if you meet police or immigration officers you have to run away from them. Everybody said that we stayed illegally, but nobody explained what was legal or illegal."

Our interviews with women who have worked in Malaysia, as well as with nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives in Malaysia and Thailand, suggest that many of them understood that they were taking a risk in migrating to Malaysia for work. Some women had heard firsthand stories about abusive conditions in Malaysia, or knew women who had returned to their villages in Thailand sick and empty-handed.

Awareness of the dangers of migration has increased as a result of information campaigns launched by the Thai government and local NGOs as well. But women also knew there was the possibility of making large amounts of money in Malaysia and thereby improving the standard of living of their parents, children, and other family members. In some cases, they lived near large houses built with remittances sent by women working in Malaysia, and they saw women who had returned to their villages after achieving financial success in Malaysia. As Yui explained to Women organisation, "when I was nineteen years old, a villager invited me to go work in Malaysia. I knew three or four women from the village had already died in Malaysia, but other women got a lot of money, so I decided to go."


Thai man agents recruiter

Thai man agents recruiter

Naiyana Supapong, who served as the Director of Friends of Women in Asia (FOWIA) from 1992 to 1998, helping women who had decided work overseas in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and other countries, explained:

Women only get positive information from agents and returning women, but they don't know about the negative things. So I gave them both – the positive and the negative information. I said to them, "some women are successful, but do you know about the suffering behind their success?" Most of the women said: we've heard about the bad situations, but some women have good luck, and we hope we'll be one of them. So most went anyway – they had already made the decision to go when I met them – but this way they were better prepared.

And, according to another Thai NGO worker. In the case of Malaysia, lots of women know what they'll do and know they'll have hardships, but they still want to go because they are so poor. The Social Welfare Department tries to prevent them from going with information campaigns in the villages saying how hard it will be in Malaysia, that they'll be beaten, etc. A police officer who is also a song writer Police Colonel Surasak Sutharom even wrote a song about exporting women, saying that it is not a heaven but a hell. There were also ex-sex workers on talk shows on television saying don't go to Malaysia. But still women want to go.

Most of the women explained that they were first approached by a relative, neighbor, or other acquaintance, who told them about opportunities to work in Malaysia:

Rei's recruiter was a Thai man who lived in her neighborhood. He was known as the "boss lek" and was known to have arranged jobs for many women in Malaysia.

Khai was recruited in 1991, at age sixteen, by a client while she was working as a masseuse and sex worker in a massage parlor in southern Thailand. As she explained to Women organisation, "a client invited me to work in Kuala Lumpur. I explained that I had no identification, but he said he could get me a passport because he was a member of parliament. So I agreed, and the client took me to a place to have my body checked. There I saw many other Thai girls trying to go to Malaysia. I was told I would work as a server."

Faa had left her village in Thailand to work in a sewing shop in Bangkok. When she was nineteen years old, her relatives in Bangkok convinced her to go to work in Malaysia.

Nam had been working at a restaurant in Chiang Rai Province when she was invited to go to Malaysia by a friend in 1991. As she recalled, "I could not find a job in Thailand and I saw that many women in the village had gone to Malaysia, so I decided to go." She was twenty-eight years old at the time.

If a woman expressed interest in going to Malaysia, the recruiter typically offered to introduce her to an agent who could make all the arrangements. Once a woman agreed to see an agent, the recruiter hurried to make the introduction. After that, the woman generally did not see her recruiter again. Chan was recruited to go to Malaysia in 1993, by friends of her aunt's whom she had known for a long time. She told Women organisation that one of these friends "introduced me to an agent, and the agent gave the recruiter 30,000 baht (US$1200)."


Travel and job in Malaysia for women from Thailand Travel and job in Malaysia for women from Thailand Travel and job in Malaysia for women from Thailand Travel and job in Malaysia for women from Thailand


Agents handled women's travel and job placement arrangements, often obtaining falsified documentation for them and always providing escorts to accompany them on their trip. Women were given only as much information as they needed to get through immigration procedures. In many cases, women traveled to Malaysia legally, on their own passports with Malaysian tourist or transit visas, and they did not understand that their visa status prohibited them from working.


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