As more and more Hong Kong people frequent the cities of the Pearl River Delta, buying flats there and going for weekends and holidays, a new area of employment has been created for migrant workers – the beauty and massage business. The female migrant workers, who come mostly from poor rural villages in inland provinces, consider themselves much better off as beauticians or masseuses than the factory workers.
According to the mainland news media, there are about 30,000 to 40,000 massage workers working in some 3,000 massage parlours in Shenzhen alone. The massage workers are mostly women and come from all over China. Many of them suffer from swollen fingers and skin diseases, but neither they nor their employers tend to pay much attention to these widespread occupational health hazards.
Xiao Mei, 20, and Mei Lan, 18, who come from rural villages in neighbouring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Hunan Province respectively, said many girls in their home villages are keen to find jobs in massage parlours in Guangdong rather than working in factories.
The girls are both working at a massage parlour in Zhengmutou Town, in Dongguan City, Guangdong Province. They told CLB that they felt lucky to have their present jobs, compared to those working in the factories where health problems and wage arrears are common.
"We can't say we are leading a very good life here, but we are much better off than factory workers. Working in the factory is so dirty. We'd rather serve clients in beauty centres and foot massage parlours. Also, sometimes we might get small tips."
It may be a better working environment than the factories, but how much better? What is the reality?
The girls work about 13 hours a day, between 10 AM and 1 AM, six days a week, in exchange for a monthly wage of about 600 Yuan. "I feel totally exhausted after work everyday. My fingers, my hands, and my back are so sore after serving about 10 clients each day," says Xiao Mei. Mei Lan says she needs to buy a lot of Chinese medical balm to soothe her sore and painful hands.
Asked if their employer offers them any medical insurance or social security, the girls looked surprised at the question and said they had never expected their boss would do that for them. "Of course it would be great if our boss provided us with these benefits, but nobody in the massage parlour has ever complained about not having them. We simply don't expect it," says Mei Lan.
Compared with the severe health and safety risks of working in chemical plants or coalmines in mainland China, the occupational health problem facing massage workers are relatively minor and so have attracted little public attention. The employers and even the masseuses themselves do not consider the problem worth addressing seriously.
Asked if any workers in the massage parlour had tried to get together with other masseuses to negotiate with their employer to fight for better occupational health protection, the girls again shrugged their shoulders and said: "Many masseuses just want to earn as much as they can and we often change employers and move to work for another parlour. Occupational health is not a major concern. After all, we are getting a more stable income than we would work in factories, and it is not so dirty."
But this may reflect a lack of information and awareness, on their part, of the kinds of health risks, such as skin disease, commonly posed by working in direct physical contact with customers and clients from diverse walks of life. For example, a 42-year-old foot massage parlour owner in Urumuqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, said her fingertips had become swollen and deformed through serving her clients over the past eight years. Another young female massage worker from Xi'an said many of her colleagues suffered chronic pain in their hands as a result of frequent physical exposure to Chinese medicines, and some had also caught skin diseases from their clients.
In addition to the potential health risks in the workplace, some female massage workers said they felt so embarrassed about working in massage parlours that they felt unable to tell other people, including their parents, about their jobs for fear of being looked down upon and sometimes even suspected of working in prostitution.
A 23-year-old university student, Xiaona, from Xi'an, who works as a foot massage worker in a massage parlour at night, said she was ashamed to tell her parents about her job. "I can't imagine how disappointed they might be if I told them that I’m touching different people's feet every night," she said. The young woman said she had to keep working in this job because she desperately needed money to finance her studies. Foot massage was seldom considered a respectable occupation, she noted, and many people had the impression that massage parlours were "pornographic" venues. She added that some customers asked for "other services," and she and her fellow workers sometimes encountered sexual harassment from drunken clients.
However, Ah Ling, a university graduate from Hunan Province who first went to work as a masseuse in Guangzhou and then Kaiping after finishing her college studies, said she would continue her work as a massage worker despite strong opposition from her family, and even though her boyfriend had left her because of her job. "There is still a lot of misunderstanding about the massage business in our society. Some people view it as being a part of the sex industry, and many people look askance at me for doing this job."
 According to a report published by the Shanghai Xinwen Wanbao (Evening News) on 17 September 2003, female massage workers are generally unaware of the health risks in their workplace. Although many of them have to seek medical treatment for their swollen hands and skin diseases, they very rarely see it as being their employer's responsibility to provide them with any medical insurance. (See: http://sh.sina.com.cn/news/20030917/171818629.shtml.)
 All the women's names used in this article are pseudonyms.
 The foot-massage parlour owner spent eight years working in another foot massage parlour before setting up her own business with her husband, who was also a foot massage worker, last year. Before joining the massage business, they were both retrenched workers (xiagang gongren) from a state-owned tire making factory in Urumuqi. (See: http://www.xj.cninfo.net/pop/activity/yuzu/page1.htm.)
 Jiangmen Daily, 9 June 2004; see: http://www.jmnews.com.cn/c/2004/06/09/08/c_277983.shtml.
11 March 2005