Working At A Bangkok Embassy
By An Embassy Employee
I work as a local staff member at an embassy in Bangkok so I could hardly be called a cigar-smoking diplomat earning a sky-high salary. 80% of staff at the embassy I work for are local staff and are not diplomats (diplomats are those people who are sent from the foreign ministry or other government agency in their home country and travel on a diplomatic passport as opposed to local staff who are contracted here locally). I work at the consular section (meaning I assist nationals from my home country) at an embassy so shall mostly stick to this and not talk about the immigration section. I can't talk for all embassies as each one is different, but most of them are very similar. I have also asked Stick not to mention the embassy I work for.
Consular sections at most embassies are quite small. For example, the consular section at the embassy I work for represents less than 5% of the total number of people working in the embassy (while this figure is slightly skewed at the embassy I work for because of large number of other government agencies who are based here in Bangkok as Bangkok is a base for all of South East Asia, I would be surprised if the figure at any other embassies was more than 10%).
Most of the money that the government allocates to a Foreign Ministry is to provide policy advice to the government. Thus, many of the services provided by the consular (and immigration) sections of western embassies have to be self-supporting or what some people like to call "user pays", this is why there are fees to pay.
I am not saying this is an excuse for "expensive fees" but without these fees there could be no services at all. Not all embassies charge the same amount for services and not all fees are that "expensive". I don't understand why the Brits are pissed off, the Americans charge a whole lot more.
At the embassy I work for a driver's license letter would on average take around 25 minutes (there are some exceptions) depending on how busy it is and costs about the same amount of money as a single re-entry visa at Thai Immigration (all three times I have applied for a re-entry visa it has taken around an hour although I know people who have got theirs in 20 minutes). All my embassy needs is your passport and your address, there are no forms to fill in.
If you come into the embassy the receptionist will be Thai (given that 70-80% of people who ring up or come into the embassy are Thai nationals this should hardly be surprising). However, if you want to speak to a national from your home country in the consular section that I work in you will always will be able to and you are almost certain to get to speak to one. If you ring up, you will almost always get to talk to a foreigner as well. I am aware that not all embassies do this and the majority of people in the consular section of most embassies are Thai so I can agree with what Stick says in his weekly column about this. While most Thais who work at the Embassy can speak very good English, very few are fluent and communication problems can arise.
The main reason that most embassies employ Thai nationals is that when an embassies employs local staff they cannot (or do not) make a distinction whether the person is a foreigner or a Thai (unlike in the private sector in Thailand), so wages are generally not as high as many think and most foreign local staff do not stay more than a couple of years
because salaries are not that high. Because of this many embassies prefer to hire Thai staff as they generally stay for many years and retraining and recruiting staff is very expensive. Your average John Smith does not have experience working in the consular section and it takes around 6 months to get up to speed.
In my experience, Thai staff, not just at an embassy, have difficulties asking people the right questions so they can then give them the right answer. It seems a fault of the Thai education system and I notice it quite often. Another problem is that Thais in general never like to say "I don't know" when they receive a question they don't know the answer too. My only suggestion to people is to ask to speak to a foreigner (I know this sounds terribly racist) or if you can't do that send an email to the embassy to ask them a question. The only real way to solve this is for the Thai educational system to improve or for an embassy to be totally staffed by foreigners. Unfortunately, neither of these things are going to happen.
However, sometimes the fault does lie with the person asking the question. Sometimes people are not so sure what they want and so their question is not clear. It can be hard to establish exactly what people want and because of this wrong information is given out or people directed to the wrong section of the embassy. One recent example where someone complained to me was that they asked about "a visa for their girlfriend" and so naturally got sent to the immigration section. The person then came back and complained because they had wasted 2-3 hours as what they really wanted was "to get married to their Thai wife first and then apply for a visa" and thus get married, they need to come to the consular section first.
There are times when I have given out wrong information and this does happen. Many times this is because information changes, I didn't know it existed, or simply I got it wrong.
While not an excuse, people also need to remember that the Thai bureaucracy does play a major role in forcing most residents to come into the consular section of their embassy for what are called "legal and notarial services".
In Thailand, if you want a driver's license, you need a letter of residence from your embassy, if you want to get married, you need to sign a document at your embassy, if you need to prove to the Thai authorities that you got married, or something similar, back in your home country you will need to take the original document to the embassy and get them to certify it as the Thai authorities do not accept the original, only the embassy photocopy with the stamp. Then there are the extremely ridiculous cases like foreigners working in Thailand through a company sponsored by the Board of Investment who most get the embassy to stamp each page of their CV/resume (I am not kidding) as part of their application for an extension to their "permit to stay" (or more commonly known as their Thai visa) or the English teachers (and some other professions) who are directed by Thai Immigration to their embassy for a letter or to sign a document in support of their Thai "permit to stay" application. I could go on and on with different examples, but I think you get the point.
Most embassies in Bangkok would be quite happy if they didn't have to provide most of the above services (it is not that we don't want to help, but it is such a time-wasting process). I know most of you are thinking, bullshit, the embassies like providing these services for the money. Think of your own country's embassy in a country like Australia, Canada, UK, or New Zealand. Do you think that your embassy in these countries would need to write you a letter to get a driver's license or to extend your visa? My home country requires none of these things for foreigners, but embassies in these countries still survive. There is no conspiracy by embassies with the Thai authorities to get money out of you, we don't get paid commission to encourage you to use more services. If all this stamping and letter writing was to end most embassies would be overjoyed, but until the Thai authorities change their way of thinking, the status quo will remain.
While most residents are used to their consular section, stamping pieces of paper and writing letters for them, this is only part of the services that the consular section provides. The more traditional role of the consular section is to provide assistance in an emergency, i.e. a family member dies, is arrested, is hospitalised, or is imprisoned in Thailand.
Consular section also provide passport facilities and help when their nationals are distressed generally. They also provide things like a list of lawyers, list of hospitals, travel advice to various countries, local government department details, foreign government details and limited information about Thai visas and working in Thailand. Now if any of your tax dollars from back home go to anywhere this is to the above services (except for passport services which you pay for).
I don't know of any western embassy which won't provide some level of assistance in real cases of distress and the embassy I work for does not charge any money for giving emergency assistance in most cases as this is what we are funded to do.
Most complaints that I am aware of are (or at least the ones made about me) stem from misconceptions about what the embassy can do for its nationals in the above cases. Your embassy cannot get you out of prison (Can you imagine the outrage back in your home country if embassies could get their nationals out of prisons back home?), your embassy cannot act as your lawyer or give legal advice, and most embassies do not have any money to pay for your hospital bills or if you run out of money either, no matter how little money you have (there are some exceptions).
While most people are rather annoyed that their government doesn't provide any money when they get into trouble overseas, it is because in the past, thousands of people borrowed money from embassies when they were overseas. In most cases, the only way for the government to get the money back is to take you to court or send debt collectors after you, all very time-consuming and expensive. Some countries have changed their laws and prevent people from travelling overseas until they pay back such money, but the laws in some countries don't allow this. For these countries, their governments try to encourage their nationals to transfer money from friends and family in their home countries first. Given the widespread availability of companies like Western Union, money can now be sent to many countries from overseas within 15 minutes so some governments prefer people use these services instead. Some people can be affected by time differences or other situations and if, your embassy is likely to be sympathetic and give you a small amount of money until the next day on the condition that you repay it to them.
Another area where I find people complain or get annoyed is the lack of information the Embassy has about a certain government agency in Thailand or back in their home country. For example, some people have asked me what documents they need to apply for a non-immigrant visa at a Thai Embassy / Consulate abroad. How could I answer that question? Anyone who has applied for a Thai visa will know it is up each individual embassy and the type of job they are applying for. I am extremely reluctant to give anyone answers about procedures for anything in Thailand as I have rung up to check what are the requirements before and then told the person only for the person to ring back and get mad at me because the Thai government has now changed their mind and want some other documents as well. Unless the procedure is clear, like marriage, your embassy is unlikely to give you a definite answer and will just provide you with the contact details and maybe some limited information. It all depends on the embassy. I try to give as much general information about work permits and Thai visas as these seem the most difficult to understand points for anyone new to Thailand. Apart from that, I just tell people to look on the internet as there is plenty of information available.
Questions about government services in your home country are also difficult for many embassies to answer. For example, people often ask about "do I have to pay tax back home?" which I can't answer as I am not a tax expert and after looking into it, it is not such an easy answer as it depends on a number of factors.
The only answer I can give is to tell people to visit the website of the tax department (whenever I say this about any government department for my home country this seems to piss the most people off and quite often I hear 'what is the bloody embassy there for then if they can't answer simple questions'). I can even direct people to the right part of the website if it is about paying tax if you are overseas, but I can't answer specific questions. Information used to be provided to embassies in the past in hard copy by many government agencies, but since the advent of the internet, the information goes out-of-date too quickly and as all that information is on the internet this is how it is provided now. However, people are not happy either way so sometimes I find I just can't win.
If anyone has a complaint about their embassy what I suggest they do is to complain in writing to someone in the embassy who is responsible for dealing with that matter, if you have an immigration problem, complain to Immigration, a consular problem, complain to Consul or Consul-General. The Thai MFA website, www.mfa.go.th, has a list of all diplomats who work at Embassies in Bangkok, you can find the correct person's name and send them details of your complaint.
If you have really been badly treated and you explain it clearly and precisely in a letter, I would be surprised if some action was not taken. If you are not satisfied with the response send another letter to the Foreign Minister in your home country.
While working at an embassy is enjoyable (it seems to help with the Thai women), it is not necessary a life of luxury. Wages are not that high and jobs in the consular section are certainly not cushy jobs. In the last year or so, some of the things myself and some of the other staff have had to do include dealing with psychiatric cases where people have become violent, had to ID a corpse, had to talk with grieving relatives when their son / daughter has just died in Thailand, sorting through a deceased person's remains and providing comfort to a rape victim (victim support services are non-existent in Thailand). It is certainly not about just pushing paper and making peoples lives difficult.
I am not writing this for sympathy, but most people seem to have unrealistic illusions about what the embassy does and that the people who work there live in ivory towers. Perhaps it can provide a little insight into the workings of an embassy.
Finally, I have to speak up in defence of diplomats to a certain extent. I did not really have a good opinion about them or the Foreign Ministry before I started working at the embassy and I thought they were snobbish elitists. However, since I started work I have find the majority of the diplomats at the embassy I work at work 9-11 hours a day (sometimes 12 hours or more). None of them get paid overtime. Sure many people in the private sector are the same, but some have some illusion that diplomats do not work long hours and it is socialising and have functions all day long.
Yes, most diplomats do get paid well and a lot more than most foreigners who work in Thailand earn, but most only earn good money while overseas. Once they go back home (remember diplomats usually do 3 years overseas and then 3 years back home), they are certainly no longer in the higher-income earning bracket. Most of the money they earn overseas is in benefits to compensate them for being posted overseas. Being posted to Thailand would not be that bad, but some can get posted to some downright awful and boring places. I wouldn't want to be working in Harare, Kabul, Tehran, or Baghdad (would you?). Many diplomats don't have a choice about where they are posted and most will end up in at least one bad place in their career. Ok, so life in Bangkok is not that hard, but for many diplomats that will mean your spouse will have problems working because of local regulations (thus likely losing an income) and have children who have to go to school and international schools are not cheap. In the last 10 years, most foreign ministries
have had difficulties keeping staff as the lure of the private sector is too great and the money is much higher. Wages have not increased for a number of years like many other jobs.
Competition to enter the Foreign Ministry is extremely high, less than 5% of applicants would ever get an interview. Most new diplomats must have a postgraduate degree, are able to speak another language fluently and are quite intelligent and could easily earn much more in the private sector. Starting salaries in my home country for people who work in the Foreign Ministry is well below that of the average wage and less than the starting salary for teachers (not wanting to single out teachers, but many people know what the salary levels are for teachers). While not the worst career in the world I don't know of any diplomats who "smoke their next cigar while sitting on the balcony of a Chao Praya River hotel chuckling about the discomfort of their fellow countrymen?". Their salaries are also not that high in comparison to many other jobs.
Excellent piece. Having heard various friends complain about embassies, it is interesting to note just what an embassy can do, and what it can't. I think people have to take a bit more responsibility for themselves and there are more than a few folks out there who seem incapable of looking after themselves and go bleating to the embassy when things start to unravel.