The Thai Workplace
I think Stick’s recent article on the Thai workplace painted an altogether too rosy and rather misleading portrait of the realities of working in Thailand for foreigners. I have worked in ten countries on three continents and have to say that my
experiences in Thailand were some of the most difficult and unpleasant of my life. I have never, either before or since, encountered employers who demand so much, yet offer so very little in return. The behaviour of many Thai employers in both
the public and private sectors, can be best described as abusive and exploitative, with staff often treated little better than indentured serfs. This includes farang employees as well as Thais, since few Thai managers and administrators have the
necessary cross-cultural or even general management skills to discern that the majority of Westerners are unlikely to put up with such treatment for very long. The ignorance and xenophobia of many of the Thais I worked with – people from the upper-echelons
of society who supposedly had a higher education and advanced degrees – was astonishing, though they usually managed to swallow their prejudices for long enough to demand that I give up my spare time to assist them with their own personal projects.
Free of charge, naturally.
There was a very interesting article in the Bangkok Post several years ago, featuring Thai students in the USA who were working to put themselves through college. These students were doing many different types of part-time jobs in a variety of establishments. The
general consensus was that although they would be prepared to tackle almost any kind of work, Thai-owned businesses should be avoided at all costs, due to exploitation and often lower than average wages. An interesting indictment by Thais of the dubious
employment practices of their fellow countrymen and women.
My comments and observations are based on working for two universities and holding a senior management position at a private institution in Thailand. Anyone who teaches in Thailand purely for the money is of course a poor economist, however I have truly never been expected to put in so many hours for such little reward as I did in Thailand. And this was expected despite careful negotiation prior to accepting a position, and in blatant disregard of what was written in the contract. Most Thai universities offer as little as ten days paid holiday per year, and expect their faculty to sign-in or even clock-in every day like blue-collar factory workers. I have never encountered this anywhere else in the world. Since teaching is one of the few occupations which is available to foreigners in Thailand, this is the workplace in which many farang in Thailand will find themselves – and in my view, the Thai ‘education’ system offers some of the worst working conditions on the surface of the planet. Little wonder, then, that Thailand seems to attract so many unsavoury characters calling themselves ‘teachers’. All this contrasts with my present situation in a neighbouring country, where I have a very pleasant, laid-back and stress-free working environment, and where contact hours, administrative requirements, and paid holiday entitlement are much more in line with international norms in the industry – probably even better than average. My situation here is everything which working in Thailand is often purported to be, but in my experience most definitely wasn't.
Perhaps I was just unfortunate in my choice of employers, however, I think the current acute shortage of foreign teachers in general in Thailand (particularly qualified and experienced educators), the conspicuous absence of 'visiting' foreign
faculty in Thai universities compared to other places in Asia, and the position (or lack thereof) of Thai universities in international or even regional league tables, is indicative that something is seriously amiss in the country's education
system. There are of course a number of reasons for this, but failure to invest in, and unreasonable exploitation of, human ‘software’ (both Thai and expat) is a principal contributory factor, in my view. The perennial pleas of poverty
simply will not wash, as many Thai universities charge tuition fees which exceed those charged by universities in some Western countries. They are also not averse to spending billions of baht in building shiny new Potemkin campuses, in order to
line someone’s pockets. Anyone who believes that Thailand is a poor country, should take a quick stroll through the staff or student car parks of some of the nation’s leading universities or private high schools, or check out the
salaries paid to many Bangkok workers who have an advanced degree and a few years work experience.
I freely admit that my grave dissatisfaction with working in Thailand was partly a personality thing. My temperament, despite a working life spent almost entirely overseas (including some of the world's less desirable locations), was simply not suited to working in that kind of situation. I know that so many people say that the key to survival in the Thai workplace is to smile, nod, say OK and then do your own thing. They are probably right. And all kudos to those who can do it. I could not. A farang friend said to me many years ago that for the credulous Westerner, Thailand can seem to offer so much, yet actually deliver so little. I know this could well be applied to almost anywhere in the world, but I do believe that it is particularly true of Thailand. The place can be very seductive and like the
Siren song of old, that seduction has the potential to lure the unwary onto the rocks. Certainly there are those who not only survive, but thrive – and Stickman is one of them. But there are also many who the country chews up and then spits out, and despite suggestions to the contrary, they are not all ‘losers’ who have ‘failed’ in their own countries or in other places, nor do they necessarily have unrealistic expectations about living and working in Thailand.
Aside from those fortunate enough to work for multi-national corporations or other non-Thai establishments, the often abysmal working conditions, low salaries, negligible benefits, envious and xenophobic Thai co-workers, pig-headed management practices, not to mention the ludicrously convoluted immigration procedures, will generally ensure that only those farang who have some compelling reason for wishing to remain in Thailand will be prepared to tolerate working for Thai institutions for an extended period.
Absolutely spot on. I hate to admit that I nod, smile and do my own thing – just as you say!