The business of relaxation

THE OPERATIONS that make the massage and spa establishments tick, ironically, is not relaxing at all. The industry is facing challenges that will only bear itself out through hard work, impeccable service and time.

The growing industry is on its way to making the business of relaxation a viable one for the city, assuring customers quality service and deep bone relaxation..



Elaine Ortonio, public relations officer of the Davao Wellness & Spa Association (DavWell) said that one of their main concerns as a group is the practices of massage and spa establishments that are “not sound.”

DavWell–a group that considers itself to be the official organization of the industry and a force at the forefront of promoting wellness–was established in 2010 and has since grown its members: operators and owners of massage, spa, and sauna services

To this day, she said, there continue to be spa establishments that offer “extra service.” Although on a lighter note, she mentioned that this practice is petering out now that there are organizations like DavWell that police the industry if not their own circle.

These “extra services,” which come as various sexual add-ons to the usual Thai or Swedish, proliferate in the industry as reflected by how unverified information and gossip travel through the grapevine.

Ortonio said that removing the stigma among massage and spa establishments is part of their efforts as a group.

“We want to remove the dirty perception of people about massage establishments and educate them on wellness,” she said.

The group is slowly inching their way to that objective, with their growing clientele that includes families with kids going to the spa.

But more potential solutions are being envisioned by the group; the recently inducted DavWell officers said that they will be closely working with the Department of Health (DOH) and the City Health Office (CHO) to decide courses of action for this.

She advised consumers to make wise decisions and to use their judgement when having spa services. DavWell stickers posted in the doors of their members give customers the assurance that they’re getting “sound industry practices.”

“We envision to lead Davao City in its promotion to be the spa and wellness destination of the country where business owners and therapists are renowned for observing sound industry practices,” Ortonio said.

Ortonio said that based on her experiences in managing massage and spa establishments, she found that visiting clients from other cities are the ones who are actually brave enough to request for “extra services.”

She said that they train their therapists not to discriminate on these kinds of clientele; but instead to professionally draw the line, while politely declining requests that go beyond the standard massage practices.

Other than these customer initiated “extra” requests, she said that the likelihood that therapists make the first move is lessening because they are being closely monitored.

CHO’s sanitation chief Robert Oconer said that his team closely works with concerned local government units in the city to oversee massage and spa establishments and to make sure that operations of these are in accordance with the Code on Sanitation of the Philippines.

Chapter 13 of this document covers comprehensive guidelines on massage clinics and sauna bath establishments.

For instance, as Oconer briefly mentioned, structural requirements of massage rooms indicate that these shall be “provided with sliding curtain or swing type wooden door or equivalent materials at the entrance. Doors with locks are not permitted.”

Massage therapists should likewise possess health certificate and should have undergone physical and medical examinations; this health certificate—an up-to-date copy of EHS Form No. 102-C and pink in color—should be clipped visibly in the upper left of their uniform.

They should also have sexually transmitted diseases (STD) clearances every two weeks from DOH.

Oconer said that the law does not explicitly mention that these “extra services” are a no-no. This is not a priority of the CHO either. But this concerns the public nevertheless because of reasons of health and hygiene.

This is where the folks from the city’s social hygiene clinic come in to educate people and to prevent undesired spread of STDs.

According to Oconer, these “extra services” are some things that they can’t control—even more so with other massage therapists who work home services upon request.

“[Dealing with 'extra services'] is beyond our call,” he said.

He also said that no massage establishment in the city perfectly adhere to the standards mentioned in the country’s code of sanitation. “Majority of the provisions there are not followed,” he said. But his department is not up on all arms against this just yet.

Manpower dilemma

Massage and spa operators are also in a limbo at the moment.

Following the agreement of Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and the Department of Health (DOH) to work together to harmonize the government’s program for massage therapists in the country, massage operators are awaiting for further actions to take for when 2017 comes—when a stricter implementation and requirement for massage therapists will be implemented.

There is currently three-year moratorium on DOH’s administrative order related to the licensing of masseurs and masseuses. The moratorium took effect January 2015 and will last up to December 2017.

During this period, massage therapists are allowed to practice the profession provided they possess a TESDA valid National Certificate in Massage Therapy NC II.

But come December 2017, according to DOH Administrative Order No. 2010-0034 (or the Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations Governing Massage Clinics and Sauna Establishments), therapists without a valid Certificate of Registration issued by the Committee of Examiners for Massage Therapy and approved by DOH will not be allowed to work.

All this is a part of DOH and TESDA’s efforts to regulate the industry, to improve services, and to attract students to studying the craft so they can pursue it as a viable career.

For Ortonio, this could mean displacement of workers who do not meet the requirements imposed by DOH and TESDA.

Some have TESDA valid National Certificate in Massage Therapy NC II; while others do not have DOH license yet.

This poses as a liability to the spa owners; if they want to keep their workers, they should be able to spend at least P8,500 for each of their workers so that each could get appropriate licenses and certifications. But owners can’t bind these workers to stay with them after spending the basic tuition fee.

Rose Cantos, training specialist of the human resource development unit of DOH said that there were 189 examiners of the massage therapist licensure exam last June. This comprehensive exam covers written and practical tests.

Others would want to work abroad and there isn’t much that massage operators can do about it, Ortonio mentioned.

She said that TESDA and DOH are open for communication regarding this. She estimated that there are currently about 500 massage therapists who work in DavWell member establishments; there are 26 spa owners in the group who manage a total of 55 establishments. There are currently over a hundred spa establishments listed under the City Tourism Office.

Man on the street

Meanwhile, business runs as usual in Rizal Park from early evening until as late as 3 AM.

Over 200 TESDA-certified massage therapists warmly welcome clients—rich and poor alike—for outdoor massage services.

One of them is Janel Jimenez, 36, and a father of three.

Jimenez said that he’s been working as a therapist for eight years now—being a massage therapist has become his main livelihood. Back in the days, he used to peddle snack food.

The success of their kind of livelihood largely relies on the current outdoor conditions. “When it rains, there is just no way for us to earn,” he said. The good thing about working as a therapist there is that they don’t necessarily have to report to a boss; they only have to comply to contributions to their cooperative that helps them run the business (like the 1800 peso renting fee for the space that their six to eight chairs occupy in the park).

Therapists like Jimenez work every day as long as they can, even when the job may seem taxing.

These outdoor therapists offer various massage services for as low as 40 pesos (hand massage) to 200 pesos (whole body).

On a good day, he said that he can cater to as many as 10 clients; he’s lucky when his regular customers (suki) visit him or when some clients request for home services.

He said that he keeps it cool when some customers go beyond the line (and give him gifts and extra generous tips in exchange for special favors). He turns them down politely and said that there will always be these kinds of customers.

And there will always be the weary others who want to de-stress and just want their massage plain and simple.