Success is Just a Plane Ride Away: Temporary Overseas Labor Migration in Rural Northern ThailandSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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If you walk down the dirt and cement streets in 'Ruoy' village, nestled against the mountains in northern Thailand's Lamphun province, one of the first things you will notice is that most families are replacing the traditional bamboo or wood walls around their home compounds with ornate cement walls and metal gates. Behind the walls are one- and two-story cement houses, with ceramic tile roofs, balconies, window screens and even chandeliers casting their light on marble or tile porches. These homes are so large and stylish that they could easily be the dwellings of dual-income professionals in a Bangkok suburb. The neighbors call them Baan yipun, or 'Japanese houses,' since most were built with remittances sent by family members working illegally in Japan.
If you stay in the village for a few days, you are likely to also notice the great variety of small businesses and restaurants lining the village streets, a wider selection than in most remote rural villages in northern Thailand. Even the Buddhist temple boasts a brand new crematorium with a tall chimney.
These developments are some of the physical manifestations of benefits arising from the temporary international labor migration of villagers. During my months in the village, I became interested in the ways in which returned migrants were socially constructing the meaning of their overseas employment experiences when they explained them to those who formed the pool of potential labor migrants. Their overwhelmingly positive representations were contributing to the development of a local 'culture of international migration' that inspired the continuation and expansion of labor migration.
The people I interviewed most commonly associated their overseas experience with a variety of status markers, including thansamay (up-to-date, fashionable) urban clothing and hairstyles. Moreover, because they worked indoors during their time abroad, their skin had become lighter, a trait most villagers see as a sign of physical beauty and respectability, signifying that they have achieved a status considered higher than that of a mere farmer.
The main benefit of international labor migration, mentioned by all of the returned migrants in my study, was its potential for generating material wealth. Because of economic differentials between Thailand and countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, the wages offered by overseas employers were typically many times higher than those offered in Thailand for similar types of work. On average, the migrants earned the equivalent of about U.S. $858 per month (without overtime, housing, food or other benefits) and remitted about $793. This is a significant sum, given that in 1997 some farm families reported earnings of less than $100 per month, and starting wages in a nearby industrial park generally ranged between $81 and $135 per month.
The economic success resulting from working abroad also allowed migrant workers to fulfill traditional and still widely valued social roles as 'good providers' by supporting their families, paying for their children's education and providing economic assistance to their parents. As a worker who had returned from Taiwan put it, "Abroad we can get money. It's hard to find money in Thailand. I wanted to help my family, my elderly mother and father."
Rural Thais' motivation to obtain these things is related to the rapid economic development that the country has experienced in recent decades. "Thais are mostly agricultural workers," said a provincial labor department head. "They are self-sufficient farmers and [traditionally] don't sell their crops for profit. But socio-economic change in Thailand has made money more important, and increasing consumerism makes people want higher salaries to buy new homes, TVs, motorcycles and refrigerators." In contemporary Thai society, material wealth is important not only for the physical comfort that it provides, but also for its association with the prestige of being 'modern' and 'urban,' as opposed to the stereotypical image in Thai culture of rural people as poor, uneducated and backward.
Returned migrants could also afford to make the largest donations to local temples and sponsor extravagant celebrations. Such public displays of generosity indicated their newfound economic status and enhanced their social prestige. The wives of many migrants found another way to demonstrate their economic and social mobility-they quit their jobs and assumed the role of full-time housewife.
In some cases, the economic prosperity resulting from overseas employment also contributed to political upward mobility. Several local elected officials had worked in Saudi Arabia and had sons who had worked or were working in Japan. The prosperity of these local leaders and their families, due in large part to overseas labor migration, helped earn them the social prestige and the means to finance the social events necessary to win local elections.
There was also a downside to the migration experience, however. For example, many migrants, especially unauthorized ones, paid exorbitant recruitment fees. In the mid-1990s, Thai women entering Japan as unauthorized workers paid as much as $75,000 in recruitment costs, travel expenses and interest. Even authorized labor migrants paid far above the legally permissible level. Other widely experienced problems included contract violations, poor food, unsafe living or working conditions, rape, difficulty in obtaining assistance from Thai Labor attachés, arrest and detention for up to 55 days and having to bribe Thai Immigration officials upon re-entering Thailand.
Yet despite the prevalence and range of hardships, many interviewees did not mention a single problem when I asked them directly about the negative aspects of working abroad. This was particularly true in the initial interview. Only in the second or third interview, or perhaps when we were chatting in an informal setting, would they describe various situations such as a failed migration attempt, a rape that they or a co-worker had experienced, or being forced to sleep with undesirable customers in a club run by the Japanese mafia. Why did they so frequently emphasize positive outcomes of their experiences and underplay or omit negative ones?
The answer lies in the importance in Thai society for individuals to present a positive image to others. Brushing over or not mentioning exploitative experiences was a way of saving face if the trip abroad had not worked out as expected. It allowed them to present themselves in the best possible light-as clever, lucky, worldly 'winners' in the international migration 'game.'
Moreover, most of the positive aspects of international labor migration are physically visible and more lasting and thus are more easily and more publicly displayed than are the predominantly transitory negative ones. Instances of exploitation, by contrast, were generally more temporary and experienced only while abroad and thus were easier to mask once people returned to Thailand.
Together, these factors helped to reify a one-sided image of international labor migration as a relatively easy, accessible and essentially positive means of attaining physical and socio-economic mobility.
Migration researchers have examined the 'cumulative causation' of migration longitudinally. This empirical work suggests that transnational migration tends to become more prevalent and to broaden its demographic, social and economic base in migrant-sending communities by affecting individual motivations and social structures. Douglas Massey, Luis Goldring and Jorge Durand argue that migration "changes the cultural context within which decisions are made, and international movement becomes increasingly attractive for reasons that are not purely economic. Migrants evince a widely admired lifestyle that others are drawn to emulate. Although some of its attractiveness is material-based on the ability to consume good and purchase property-the lifestyle also acquires a strong normative component." Over time, in communities where foreign wage labor has become fully integrated into local values and expectations, international migration becomes increasingly independent of the conditions that originally caused it. Each act of migration gives rise to a set of irreversible changes in individual motivations, social structures and cultural values that alter the context of future migration decisions. Such changes accumulate over time, making additional labor migration more likely.
This phenomenon can be observed in northern Thai communities, where the emphasis on the positive outcomes of labor migration and the tendency to omit reference to negative aspects of those experiences support the development of a localized 'culture of international labor migration,' which, in turn, contributes to further international labor migration. As migrant remittances flow in, they are used to purchase not only modern houses and new vehicles, but also consumer goods like televisions and VCRs, which increase access to mass media portrayals of the desirable modern consumer culture found in Bangkok and abroad. This further contributes to changing social values, greater materialism and increasing disparities in wealth and status on a local level. Growing disparities between migrant and non-migrant households, in turn, add to feelings of relative deprivation; many households are drawn into international labor migration because of their desire to keep up with their migrant neighbors.
The literature on this subject suggests that early out-migrants are not the poorest of the poor; rather, they are sufficiently well off to be able to afford the costs of migrating and to avoid the risks of unsuccessful migration. But, as international labor migration becomes more familiar to the communities, as the economic benefits become more desirable, and as social connections between returned and current migrants and potential migrants spread, reducing the costs and risks of working abroad, less well-off persons are drawn into overseas labor migration.
Thai international labor migration has followed this general pattern. In the 1970s and 1980s, most Thai migrants were married, middle-aged men, many of whom had worked for their foreign employers on infrastructure construction contracts in Thailand during the Vietnam War and then had been recruited to work in the Middle East. But subsequent migration flows gradually incorporated younger, unmarried men and both unmarried and married women, as well as members of very poor ethnic minority communities.
The expansion of international labor migration has also reduced the desirability of local economic pursuits. Access to higher wages and fashionable consumer goods has created new standards of material well-being and new ambitions for upward mobility. Positions in the nearby industrial park were considered too low-paid to be attractive to returned migrants, even for those who had worked there before going abroad. Some returnees preferred to invest in fruit trees or animal husbandry in order to leave rice production, while the most successful opened up small businesses and left the agricultural sector altogether. Still others preferred to remain unemployed in Thailand for a period of months or years and later return abroad for employment.
While my study did not permit a truly longitudinal view of the spread of international labor migration, it revealed that in the span of about 20 years, the 'culture of international labor migration' had spread to a second generation. By the late 1990s, as many as 30 to 50 percent of village households had sent one or more members abroad for short-term employment. Interestingly, however, northern Thailand has not experienced the shift towards permanent overseas settlement that most successful Mexican labor migrants to the U.S. have followed. Instead, Thai migrant workers have continued to return to their home villages where they parlay their earnings into economic, social and sometimes mobility for themselves and their families.
The overwhelmingly positive representations of international labor migration in my research villages challenge the popular discourse on the topic, which focuses largely on the powerlessness, naiveté or economic dependence of Thais migrants. This emphasis on the positive outcomes of the international work experience points not to the powerlessness of Thai workers, but to their agency in using opportunities to reshape their own and their families' social and economic prospects within both their communities and the broader Thai society.
Teresa Sobieszczyk is a post-doctoral research fellow at the U-M's Population Studies Center. She earned a PhD in development sociology and Southeast Asian studies from Cornell University in 2000. The following article is based on field research she conducted in northern Thailand from May 1996 to January 2000. She first became interested in Thai international labor when she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1986-1988.