By Guest Contributer
Immigration officials detained 11 foreigners at a co-working space in Chiang Mai Wednesday morning, acting on a tip-off about illegal workers.
Flanked by six uniformed soldiers, the officials arrived unannounced at Punspace at 10am, taking pictures and demanding information about the business, witnesses said.
Immigration officials said they’d received a tip-off that Punspace was employing foreigners illegally. Punspace has three employees who are all Thai citizens, according to co-owner Euam Pichaya, and it does not sponsor foreigners for Thai visas.
“The soldiers asked ‘what are these farang (foreigners) doing here?’ They didn’t know what we are,” said one Punspace employee.
Christina Canters, an online business consultant from Melbourne, was among those questioned. Like many of who work from the co-working space, she is in Thailand on a tourist visa.
“The immigration people thought we were working for Punspace. Because that’s what it looks like from the outside, it looks like an office, and essentially it is,” she said.
Canters says she ignored the officials and soldiers initially, until everyone was asked for their passports. Those that couldn’t produce one were asked to board a van and accompany the officials to Chiang Mai’s immigration office. One of the foreigners with an education visa, issued to those studying at a language school, was quizzed on his Thai. After more than an hour, Canters says those with passports were rounded up as well – taking everyone working at Punspace except for the Thai employees.
One of those questioned was Johnny FD, from San Francisco, who has been living in Thailand on-and-off for about a year. He blogs about Muay Thai training camps and produces a weekly podcast interviewing entrepreneur ‘digital nomads’.
“They were asking really random questions, like which Muay Thai gym I go to, and how many farang [foreigners] go there,” Johnny said.
An immigration official refused to answer questions about the raid, but confirmed they were monitoring places like Punspace “with lots of farang” as part of an ongoing investigation.
The Punspace members were all released from the immigration office by around 3pm, after officials verified none of the 11 had overstayed their visas, been blacklisted or were working illegally.
Immigration office visited us this morning. Everything is OK now. No one got arrested. But we apologize for their trouble. More info later.
— Punspace (@punspace) October 1, 2014
Foreigners working for a Thai firm must hold a valid non-immigrant (Type B) visa, but so-called ‘digital nomads’ – who are often self-employed – can sidestep that requirement.
Chiang Mai Immigration Superintendent Pol. Col. Rutphong Sanwanangkun assured business leaders and foreign consular officials last month that ‘digital nomads’ are permitted to use tourists visas.
Punspace (meaning “shared space”), which opened last March, is one of a growing number of co-working spaces in Thailand that provide shared office facilities for online entrepreneurs. Co-owners Euam and Piqué Pichaya said immigration officials had never once investigated Punspace since it opened.
“This is the first time, we are so surprised and shocked,” Euam said.
“It was a misunderstanding… They didn’t understand the concept of co-working space,” Piqué added.
Members of Punspace are required to provide their passport number upon joining for security purposes, but their visa status is not checked.
Piqué said he doesn’t expect the surprise raid to affect business since no-one was arrested and the situation was resolved quickly. Punspace has offered those questioned by immigration one free month’s membership.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” Johnny said. “Yes, it was a waste of time, but it makes it a bit easier for other digital nomads, I think, because they [immigration officials] know what a co-working space is now.”