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Mai Janta, 29, came to Thailand from Shan State with her family when she was a year old. Her brother had been conscripted to the Myanmar army and her family feared that he would never return if he had to join. The memory of her uncle was still fresh in their minds when they left -- She says he had joined before her brother was conscripted, and was left to die after he hurt his leg. She's been helping support her family since she was 10 years old, when she started her first job.
It wasn't until her mid-twenties that she started working in a go-go bar, where she earned more cash than any other job she had held before. Before that, she worked in childcare, cleaning, and even food service. She worked at a bakery, too, which she hated. From the northern border karaoke bars to the streets of Bangkok's Nana Plaza, the entertainment and sex industry's strong presence in the Land of Smiles isn't hard to miss. According to the Thailand Migration Report issued by the UN-funded International Organisation for Migration, it's estimated that there are about , sex workers in Thailand.
But not all of those workers are Thai nationals. Thailand is a regional hub for migrant workers, and the sex industry is no exception to that. But it's not just the prospect of more cash for themselves that brings women into the trade, it's the prospect of being able to take care of their families while hopefully saving something on the side. For Mai, the extra cash from her go-go bar work allows her to support her father while supplementing the income of her older brother, who has a new baby, as well as her younger brother who is starting a fruit stall business.
She is also able to lend some financial assistance to her two aunts in case of emergencies. A sex worker in Thailand might make in a few hours what a construction worker makes in a few days, says Liz Hilton, the director of the Empower Foundation, an NGO that assists female sex workers within Thailand.
Working for baht per day in Thailand just won't cut it if you have other people depending on you. Many women, like Mai, are also supporting their parents and younger siblings, and sex work is one of the only types of work that allows unskilled labourers to make a high enough wage that allows them to save some money on the side.