In Goa’s spas, Northeastern women work under fear of sexual assault, salary cuts

Pamela D’Mello on protests by North East Women working in spas in Goa

Northeastern women employed in Goa’s spas and salons have come out in protest against unfair labour practices and an unsafe work environment that puts them at risk of sexual assault and compromises their dignity.

The matter came to the fore when a dozen women therapists at a leading salon and spa in North Goa quit en masse on August 20 and, five days later, approached the North East Association of Goa – which represents the Northeastern community in the state and especially the 3,000-odd migrant workers from the region – for help.

“The two main grievances of the women were that they were repeatedly forced to visit the homes of unknown individuals to give massage services and driven there alone, putting them at sexual risk from the client and at criminal risk from the police,” said association president Aghato Awomi, addressing a media conference in Panjim on November 17.

The therapists also complained of being sent to beach parties and weddings, where they often had to deal with drunk men, against their will.

Calling the allegations false, the spa owner denied the use of illegal, coercive or unethical practices.

Highlighting the women’s problems, the association released a fact-finding report by Andrea Wright, a research scholar from Brown University studying the migration of women from the Northeast and their employment in the beauty service sector of India’s cities. The report is a worrying chronicle of vulnerable employees caught in organisations with poor systems of redressal, where their concerns are brushed aside if not dealt with in the form of punishments. Threatened with salary cuts, the women are forced to put in long hours till late in the night, visit the homes of influential men and attend beach parties that compromise their dignity. The report pointed out that even high-end spas were known to use such methods to accommodate their influential clientèle.

Since the therapists sought the intervention of the North East Association of Goa, other labour issues have surfaced, including the lack of appointment letters, salary slips, benefits, days off and proper work hours, besides arbitrary pay cuts and racist language.

Goa’s spa and casino sectors employ a large number of Northeastern women. In fact, they account for 90% of workers in the state’s spa industry.

Awomi also said the women therapists were distressed when their photographs and names were circulated on a spa owners’ WhatsApp group to prevent their employment in future.

“This is grossly unfair,” said human rights activist Sebastian Hongray. “These women are young migrants who have a language problem. They come from underprivileged backgrounds, have to send money back home, often to support the education of younger siblings. They need their jobs, but want to work with dignity in the service sector.”

Demand for dignity

Goa’s spa and casino sectors employ a large number of Northeastern women. In fact, they account for 90% of workers in the state’s spa industry.

“We don’t want the kind of tourism that Goa is projecting,” said Mayori Ruiva, an advisor to the North East Association of Goa. “We want our women to work with dignity.”

The association has submitted a set of demands to the Goa Salon and Spa Association, a collective of 16 spas in the state. One of the demands is a ban on cross-gender massage. “Cross massage must be stopped since that makes women vulnerable to exploitation,” it said.

However, Goa Salon and Spa Association secretary Sumeet Bhobe defended cross-gender massages. “It is a sensitive issue, but you have to have freedom of choice that can be exercised,” he said. “We don’t want gender discrimination.”

Though cross-gender massages are not prohibited by law, they were cited as one of the reasons for police raids on 74 illegal massage parlours in the state in 2014, many of which were shut down.

“We acknowledge that there is a major problem because of fly-by-night operators, and I do admit that girls and therapists must be getting abused there,” Bhobe added. “But it is a problem for us too because it tarnishes the image of even reputed establishments.”

At the time of the crackdown, the Goa Salon and Spa Association had sought an accreditation board for the screening, licensing and regulation of the spa industry, regulatory and training mechanisms, and taxes and promotion under the tourism department.

Since then, Goa’s reputation as a medical tourism destination for wellness and spas has picked up, though some law enforcement problems remain. The Wright report drew a parallel with dance bar raids in the state two years ago, stating that while Northeastern hostesses were arrested and maligned by the police, the bar owners managed to bribe their way out of being arrested.

First published in SCROLL. Featured image by Nick Webb/Flickr

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