Thailand’s crackdown on people living and working on tourist visas will have far-reaching effects in several sectors, not the least of which is education. English teachers who have not been able to secure work permits may soon face unemployment or an uphill battle to get the documents needed to work there legally.
In the past, some schools hired foreign teachers and had them work on tourist visas to avoid the time and expense of getting work permits. But with immigration vowing to weed out those living in Thailand without the proper long-term visas, the days of getting around those regulations may be coming to a close.
There are a number of factors at play in the teacher work permit issue. One problem is that smaller schools simply don’t have the manpower to oversee the lengthy and expensive visa and work permit process for foreign teachers. Richard Barrow, a Thailand-based travel blogger who also works as a recruiter and liaison for foreign teachers, said securing a work permit can take up to two months and requires extensive paperwork and correspondence with several different offices.
Large, well-funded schools that can hire administrative staff to handle these tasks do fine. But those that can’t afford an admin personnel don’t have the capacity to go through the process for every foreign teacher. The teachers would have a hard time navigating the process by themselves, as there are several bureaucratic steps that need to be taken and require assistance from a more knowledgable colleague.
“It’s very difficult to apply for the visa and work permit by yourself,” Barrow said. The teachers “need collaboration with the school. The school doesn’t always have the resources to do it.”
That’s when the tourist visa or border run route become attractive. Until recently, teachers could do an in-and-out border run once a month, granting them a 30-day stay each time. Alternatively, some would get tourist visas that allow for up to three months in the country per entry (each entry is good for 60 days, after which visa holders can apply for a 30-day extension). But border runs are becoming a thing of the past, especially ahead of Aug. 12, when immigration will be enforcing the laws more strictly. A tourist visa may not even cut it now, as anyone believed to be working in Thailand without proper documentation can be refused admittance. That creates an even greater hassle for teachers who are often saddled with the cost of the visa, plus expenses for leaving the country to apply for the visa and work permit.
“A complaint you often hear from teachers is the school does not pay, at least not for all the expenses. And it can be very expensive,” said Phil Williams, who runs the popular teaching site ajarn.com. “They have to find train tickets, accommodation. When you’re only earning 30,000 baht (US$943) a month, it’s a lot of money out of your paycheck. Teachers have always complained about having to pay for visa runs themselves, but what’s important now is that you’ve got the risk of not getting back.”
Working on a tourist visa or with a visa exemption stamp is illegal. But it is also the only option for teachers who do not have a bachelor’s degree, a prerequisite for obtaining a work permit to teach English. Although some say it’s for the best that those teachers without degrees be rooted out, Barrow disagrees.
“That’s not necessarily fair,” Barrow said. “Just because you don’t have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean you can’t be a good teacher. We’ve got people who’ve been in Thailand teaching for five or 10 years. I feel sorry for them, [the restriction is] not necessarily fair. Some of them are experienced and are good teachers.”
Paul Garrigan, a freelance writer and former teacher, also said the degree requirement is not the best way to ensure schools hire good instructors.
“It is reasonable that Thailand wants to attract the best teachers, but the authorities are going about it the wrong way,” Garrigan said via email. “I have a PGCE, but I know plenty of non-degree teachers who are more capable than I am to manage a classroom and get the most out of students. I would feel better putting my son in a classroom with a teacher who was passionate about the job rather than with someone who just has the right paperwork.”
The work permit problem has been an ongoing one, something Garrigan can attest to. He began teaching in 2002, and recalled his employer’s reluctance to help him get the right paperwork.
“I was promised a work permit, but my boss kept on coming up with excuses for why it was being delayed. I was told this delay was normal and not to worry about it,” Garrigan said. “I’ve heard from other lots of other people who have also been put in the position of working illegally due to broken promises by employers. I would imagine the majority of teachers in Thailand start off by working illegally while on tourist visas.”
Stricter enforcement of the rules and a less-than-attractive compensation package may also keep teachers away from Thailand. Williams noted that although living expenses have increased in Thailand during the past several decades, particularly in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, teacher salaries have not gone up by much.
The combination of relatively low pay and the uncertainty of getting a work permit will likely have qualified teachers looking elsewhere in Asia for employment. Countries such as South Korea offer attractive teaching packages, a good starting salary, and assistance with obtaining the proper work permits. Someone looking to make money and possibly pay off debt back home will find it hard to turn an offer like that down in favor of work in Thailand. Japan and China are also more attractive destinations in certain respects.
Williams speculated that Thailand will increasingly become a destination for “gap year” teachers willing to do a three- to six-month stint with a school. Agencies offer teachers perks such as airport pick-up and guaranteed employment, and can make handsome fees off travelers doing a tour of the region. The gap year trend is not ideal by quality teaching standards, but it solves the problem for schools that can’t afford to go through the work permit process, or are reluctant to do so.
How many people will be affected by the crackdown is hard to pin down, Williams said. Especially with teachers working on tourist visas, it’s difficult to know how many are employed in Thailand. But he predicted the stricter regulations will impact a significant number of people.
Another concern is Thailand’s English proficiency rates ahead of the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community) integration in 2015. The Ministry of Education allocated more than 500 million baht (US$15.7 million) to help students improve their English skills, according to The Nation. If the problem seems to affect Thailand’s competitiveness in the regional community, Williams said the government may loosen the restrictions or make changes to the existing guidelines.
“Of course you’ve got the whole Asian concept, the whole Thai concept of losing face, so if a few months down the line the schools are saying ‘we’ve got no teachers,’ they might find some ways to subtly backtrack,” he said.
“What I hope is that the government will realize this is a problem sooner rather than later and will make the process of schools getting work permits easier for the schools and teachers,” Barrow said. “If they are serious about getting English in the schools, they have to do something.”
Schools that cannot afford to bring on long-term English teachers may resort to having Thai teachers instruct the English lessons. But this is less than ideal, Williams said, since they often teach the lessons still using Thai.
“The reality is most Thai teachers just don’t speak English well enough to be able to teach it effectively,” Garrigan said.
Both Williams and Barrow said it’s too soon to tell what the impact will be. Barrow said most schools will likely have enough teachers to get through the next term, but may see shortages come November if teachers on tourist visas are unable to get back in the country. He said many schools and teachers are likely hoping immigration will loosen enforcement standards again, but that they should not get their hopes up.
“It’s going to carry on like this,” he said. “You’re going to find a lot of schools aren’t going to be able to afford the teachers.”
Willams shares that sentiment, suggesting many small schools may face a shortage in the coming months.
“I think a lot of schools will just do without,” he said. “What else could possibly happen?”