Yesterday I met a girl called Ann*. I went to a tiny little massage place on the side of the road on one of Thailand’s southernmost islands. AT had gone in for one earlier in the morning and was raving. The price was standard for the island, ฿250 baht ($7.50AUD) for an amazing hour long traditional Thai massage. So, I thought I’d treat myself and was looking forward to it. Ann had a massage and beauty treatments shop that consisted of four mattresses for clients, but she is the only one currently working there. It’s low season you see, but in high season she employs three other girls to help with the demand.
After two hours, and one of the best massages I have ever had, I had learned a lot about Ann.
She was quite timid at first, but very smiley and friendly. It was about 30 minutes into the massage when we began chatting, I think there is nothing more beautiful than hearing about someone else’s life. At first it was trivial, where do you live? are you from here? how long have you had this shop? – type of questions. She explained that she had the shop for three years, had learnt her massage skills in Bangkok, and discovering she was not from the south, she was from the north of Thailand where her family still live; she had moved down to the islands to work where there are more tourists.
We then began talking about her previous job. She had worked in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, for one of the biggest technological manufacturers in the world, producing goods for companies like Microsoft. Ann told me that it is very common for people from Thailand, the Philippines and greater China to work on contracts in these factories. It was rare that people ever worked over their three-year contracts, but Ann was great at her job, her bosses told her she learnt quickly and she was offered a 12 year contract in the factory. Financial and job security like that is rare, particularly in countries such as those mentioned above. She accepted and continued her work. Ann and her thousands of colleagues worked 12 hour days, with one day off a month. Yes, one day off… a month. She described the working conditions to which she had to adhere, and her daily life, as I heard more I just couldn’t believe that the same person had lived such a different life.
Ann told me that everyone lived on site, there were rooms that housed workers, and she had slept on the fourth bunk of the eight beds on top of one another. In each room there were six of these similar bunk beds, so she was sharing a room with 47 other people. Everyday. Her days were long, and the workers were not allowed out after 9pm, they were locked out if they were not inside the premises. There was even a 7Eleven inside the factory, to discourage people from leaving the factory. She spent the first week in tears, speaking no Mandarin or English, the two languages spoken at the factory. She told me she realised she needed to learn fast, so that was what she did, she can now speak Mandarin, English and Tagalog in addition to the two languages she already knew, Thai and Lao. If staff were ever late to work, they were docked the Taiwanese equivalent of ฿1 000 from their pay, (AU$32), an unreasonable 5% of their monthly pay for being ten minutes late. They were paid ฿20 000 a month (AU$611) and worked over 80 hours a week, with no day off. After three years, they were permitted two weeks holiday. Ann did not take her holiday and return to Thailand, she explained it would have taken too much time to get from Taipei to the north of Thailand by means of travel that was in her budget.
Of her monthly wage, she sent ฿15 000 home to her mother, so had a mere ฿5 000 (AU$150) to live on per month. She worked for six years, without a holiday. This means, receiving one day off a month for six years, only 72 days of 2 191 were spent not working; 96.7% of her days in Taipei were spent working.
After six years, half way through her contract, the company paid for a return ticket for Ann to Thailand for a one month holiday. She said she visited her family for the month and that on the day of her departure from Bangkok, she arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport and decided then and there she was not going to return to Taipei, “back to hell”. She threw her ticket in the rubbish bin at the airport and stayed in Bangkok. She didn’t even tell her mother, she was too afraid of the response and shame it would bring on her family that she had deserted a paying job, something many people in Thailand would be grateful for.
Her boss called her on the day she was to resume working, furious that she was not at work, she told him she would not return to hell, she was staying in Thailand, and after his second phone call, she snapped her sim card and threw it away so the company could not contact her again.
It was in Bangkok, just over three years ago, that she began her massage course, she spent three months getting qualified, and also worked for two months in the infamously sleezy coastal town of Pattaya at a hotel as the massage therapist for experience. After that she decided to head south, on a holiday, her first in almost seven years. It was then that she found the perfect place to start her own business and own and run a massage and beauty therapy shop.
Ann now lives out the back of the shop, showing me where her bed was she explained she earned around the same money she was earning in Taipei and still sent the same amount home to her mother. The difference was now she had her own business she could work the hours she wanted and got the opportunity to meet people, and if she was sick or tired she was able to have the day off, as well as her regular days off. It also means that if she needed to return home for any reason, she could get to the town she grew up in, where her family currently reside, very easily. Not only were all of those things important to her, she enjoyed what she did, and liked her work. By the time my massage was up, conversation was still flowing, it had been over two hours. She apologised for talking so much and asked me to apologise to my husband (she had assumed AT and I were married) for keeping me so long.
I was not naive enough to be unaware that this is a reality for many factory workers in China, and other parts of the developing world. In fact a few years ago, AT and I had done quite a lot of research about FoxConn, who supply many of technology’s leaders with their products, Apple being the one that gained a considerable amount of controversy when it was discovered that their factory workers had an extremely high level of suicide and the conditions employees worked in were as appalling as the factory Ann worked in Taipei. You can read more about that here.
I still can’t believe the conversation I just had, I had heard and read much about the factory conditions in China, but it was completely different hearing it from someone who had actually experienced such a life. If she had returned to her job, she would still be over two years off finishing her contract. I am certainly glad she managed to escape the clutches of the corporation that held her captive for six years. Ann said that those years were like being in prison.
The last year has changed me as a person (I hope!) and speaking to people who have very different lives to the one I lead is part of what I love most about travelling. Meeting people like Ann, someone who has changed their own life for the better, is inspiring. It also makes me realise just how much people born in the western world take for granted. I feel incredibly lucky, and am so happy that Ann can now enjoy her life and has been able to choose the path that she has now forged.
I hope I see her again, I will send anyone I know who is visiting this island her way for an incredible massage and to meet an even more incredible person.
*I have changed her name to protect her anonymity, but I assure you she was a real (and beautiful) person.