Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 5, May 2001
Mary Beth Mills

Thai Women in the Global Labor Force: Consuming Desires, Contested Selves

New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1999,
pp.xi, 218. Includes index
ISBN 0-8135-2653-1 (cloth: alk. paper) ISBN 0-8135-2654-X (pbk: alk. paper)

reviewed by Andrew Matzner

It is hardly news that the Thai economic miracle was built upon the backs of women. Also well documented is the fact that many of the women working in urban factories and service industries are migrants from the countryside. Young women are attractive to employers because they are more likely than males to put up with low pay, short-term employment, and repetitive, labor-intensive work. Female migration to employment in Thai urban areas has often been described in simple terms of economic exploitation and rural-urban income disparities. Yet few researchers have bothered to investigate migration from the point of view of the workers themselves.

With Thai Women in the Global Labor Force, anthropologist Mary Beth Mills addresses this serious gap in the literature. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in both Bangkok and a small northeastern village, Mills explores the complex factors which underlie the motivations of young rural women involved in the migration process. She found that economic necessity was often not the primary driving force behind a woman's decision to migrate to Bangkok. Rather, it was the desire to participate in a 'modern' (thansamay) life. Mills examines this aspiration to be 'modern' and traces its effects on migrants and their families using an interpretative approach. Her book is divided into two portions. The first focuses on the village environment, which is both the origin and terminus of the migration process. The second part details the experiences of migrants once they have arrived in Bangkok.

Mills begins by introducing the Thai concept of 'modernity'. She argues that in order to understand its significance to villagers, one must first examine the relationship between northeastern Thailand (known as Isan and populated mostly by ethnic Lao) and the centralised Bangkok government. Historically, political and social forces emanating from the capital have sought to incorporate Isan into the Thai nation-state. This has been accomplished in such ways as the introduction of government-run schools and pressure on northeasterners to use the central Thai language instead of their own local Lao dialects. Yet at the same time, Isan villagers are constantly reminded that they are outsiders who occupy a subordinate position in the national hierarchy. For example, due to their Lao origins people from Isan are stereotyped by the central Thai as being 'backward' and 'undeveloped'.

Mills contends that it is due to this dichotomous relationship between Isan and Bangkok that the importance of modernity emerges. The Thai mass media posits Bangkok as the center of everything which is new and modern in Thailand. Those who live in Isan find themselves presented with a media-imposed standard of up-to-dateness and development against which they are negatively measured. This contrast is nowhere more visible than on popular television soap operas. Mills recounts how these programs, which are set in Bangkok, are peopled with sophisticated and charming urbanites. When characters from Isan appear, they are portrayed as uncouth 'country bumpkins'.

Once Mills establishes how the idea of modernity affects the ways in which Isan villagers view themselves and their position in the Thai nation-state, she proceeds to examine how young women engage with this discourse.

The Thai mass media explicitly instructs its female consumers as to what is modern, desirable and beautiful. In particular, 'Advertising and the entertainment media celebrate and promote the beautiful Thai woman as an example of up-to-date style and independence' (105). At the same time, this thansamay femininity is linked with urban living. Faced with daily evidence of their marginalisation and backwardness, young rural women believe that it is only by migrating to Bangkok that they will be able to inhabit an identity which both the media and the state has convinced them is more desirable than their own.

The decision to leave home challenges the dominant gender ideology in the village, as unrestricted movement was traditionally unavailable to young women. While sons are free to travel for adventure or for sexual exploits, daughters are expected to remain at home in order to help take care of the family and safeguard their sexual integrity. Thus, in their quest for modernity rural women leave behind the restrictive gaze of parents and neighbours which polices their movements. For their part, families must decide whether the extra cash their daughter might remit home from Bangkok is worth the loss of parental authority over mobility, labour and sexuality.

Next, Mills shifts her focus to Bangkok. She explains how migrants' expectations of living a modern life in the city clash with the reality of urban wagework. Low wages, harsh working conditions, the physical and mental stresses of industrial labor, and uncomfortable dormitory living all take their toll. With the amount of overtime hours migrants were expected to put in, 'many felt that as workers they enjoyed less freedom than they did at home' (125). As low wage-earning, low status workers, migrants found that their ability to purchase thansamay goods and engage in thansamay experiences was limited.

Mills believes that one way in which migrants attempt to salvage a form of 'modern' identity is through temporary visits home. By bringing back money to their families and making donations at temples, while dressed in the latest fashions and accompanied by new friends from work, young women are able to reconcile their commitment to both their village and family as well as to modernity. Merit making trips taken by groups of migrants are especially important, as these large, attention-getting events 'allow rural youth to assert (if only temporarily) some of the social authority and prestige they had hoped to gain through migration to Bangkok...' (145).

However, Mills demonstrates that engaging in thansamay behaviour can create problems for women. For example, although wearing fashionable (i.e. sexy) clothing and makeup might impress younger villagers, these symbols of modernity are in direct conflict with the traditional village gender discourses which discourage women from drawing attention to their sexuality. Such immodesty can call a woman's reputation into question and threaten her chances for finding a suitable marriage partner. At the same time, some migrants rebel further against parental expectations of suitable marriage partners. Unhappy with the prospect of returning to the village to settle down into the traditional roles of wife and mother, some have decided to postpone marriage in order to stay in the urban labour force for longer amounts of time.

Yet if some migrants feel that village romance is limited and boring, they soon find that the ideal urban romance, unhampered by parental restrictions, is problematic as well. Sexually active women discover that gossip about their relationships can easily travel back home to their families and neighbours. In addition, Mills' informants felt that men they encountered in the city were lazy and irresponsible. These men were seen as poor providers who would not hesitate to abandon a woman if she became pregnant. Thus, the image of urban romance - which appeared so attractive on television screens - falls by the wayside once young women actually come to Bangkok and attempt to experience it for themselves.

According to Mills, women's labour migration also involves the desires of parents to capitalise on their daughters' earnings. For example, parents realised that they could use the cash sent home by a daughter to purchase symbols of modernity for themselves in the village, such as electric household appliances or even a new, modern-style home (made of concrete instead of wood). However, Mills found that migrants remitted various amounts of money back to their families. In fact, some sent home very little. This led to conflicts within the family, as traditional notions of support and dependence were turned upside down. According to Isan belief, children are obligated to their parents who have brought them into the world and raised them. However, this karmic debt (bun khun) is gendered. That is, a son repays it by becoming a monk. This generates a significant amount of karmic merit for his parents. Whether he is ordained for three days or three years, once a son has done this, his debt to his parents is paid. A daughter, on the other hand, is taught to be responsible for household chores. She is also expected to take care of her parents as they grow old. Accordingly, her obligation lasts for life. Therefore, when a young woman moves to Bangkok a reversal of bun khun may occur, as parents lose their direct authority over their daughter. Instead, they find themselves in a position in which they become dependent on their daughter's willingness to remit money home. This also puts the daughter in a difficult position in terms of how she spends her earnings, as she must navigate between her responsibility to be a dutiful daughter and her desire to be a 'modern woman'.

In her final chapter Mills draws together the multiple contradictions and compromises migrants to Bangkok face as they learn that the modernity the mass media convinced them to desire is largely unattainable. Mills notes that little is being done on a collective level by migrants to challenge the causes of their dissatisfaction. Instead, she argues that migrants experience these disjunctures 'as matters of personal stress or misfortune. Consequently, dominant cultural discourses about gender, modernity, and sexuality that help propel young women into Bangkok jobs also help to obscure how migrants' urban dilemmas are rooted in the exploitative conditions of urban wage labor' (165). Nevertheless, Mills optimistically concludes that a lack of tenable lifestyle and employment choices for young rural women might eventually compel them to take confrontational action against the oppressive structures of power in which they are enmeshed.

Thai Women in the Global Labor Force is a well-articulated ethnography which clearly examines both the causes and effects of rural-urban migration. Mills writes in a lively style and includes many anecdotes, making this text attractive for use in undergraduate courses. At the same time, because of its nuanced level of analysis and inclusion of the voices of migrants and villagers, Mills brings a new level of understanding to the study of Thai gender relations and political economy.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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