As hopefully most of my readers will be aware, I don’t think very highly of the visa/work permit system in Thailand and it was the main contributing factor in my decision to leave the country permanently. I base this dislike on an incident that happened to me while I was teaching in Phuket and it is proof that the system is deeply flawed and that the new changes to the visa renewal process are destined to fail.
I began my English teaching career in a small language school in Phuket at the end of 2003 and initially it was the perfect introduction for me, as the classes were small and I was able to teach whatever I thought was necessary, rather than simply being told to teach ‘conversation’. The only problem for me was that the classes were very irregular, sometimes there being hardly any at all and then two weeks later I’d be teaching over 30 lessons per week. I was also expected to teach on weekends as well, and sometimes I would work many days in succession without a day off.
I made the decision to leave the language school and try to gain employment at a Thai government school purely because I wanted the security of knowing I would receive a stable salary and that I would have my weekends free to explore more of Phuket, as well as public holidays and annual holidays. I felt that I was experienced enough to perform the job and I was very happy when I secured a position at Dowroong Wittaya School in Phuket at the beginning of the 2005 school year in May of that year.
I was told by the Director (Thai schools don’t have Headmasters) that the school would process a work permit for me and this came as a great relief to me as it meant I could work there legally and not have to worry about travelling north to Ranong and taking a boat across to Myanmar every four weeks to renew my tourist visa. The school had to organise a few things in order to process my work permit first (countless documents that I had to sign as well as supplying a ridiculous number of photographs) and it was not until September that I was told by the lady in the small administration section that I needed to travel to Penang in Malaysia to obtain my coveted non-immigrant B visa. This visa entitles the holder to live and work in Thailand while their work permit is being processed (the B stands for Business). I made the trip by bus at my own expense, stayed in the very interesting town of Georgetown on the island of Penang for two nights while my visa application was processed at the Thai consulate and then travelled all the way back to Phuket. Believe me, it’s quite a journey.
My lovely new non-immigrant B visa was valid for three months and expired interestingly on New Year’s Eve, 2005. So the administration at the school had three months in which to process my work permit and if all went well I would have a nice New Year’s present of a little blue work permit booklet.
I resumed my teaching in the school environment and before I knew it, November had rolled around and I had no word about my work permit process. I had learnt by that stage that Thai people do not like to be ‘hassled’ to do things (especially by a foreigner) and if someone has been good enough to tell you that they’ll do something for you, then it’s respectful to leave that person alone to fulfil their promise to you. In our western culture, of course, we think nothing of reminding that person that they made a promise and that they have an obligation to carry it out. So I was in mixed minds when I started to wonder how my work permit was coming along, but I managed to bump into the administration lady and I casually asked her about it. She told me it was all being taken care of and not to worry about it and it would be ready soon. I was very relieved to hear that and also pleased that I hadn’t offended her in any way.
Very soon it was mid-December and I still had heard nothing about my work permit. I had about two weeks until my non-immigrant B visa ran out and then I would face the penalty of having to pay a 200 baht fine for every day that I was in Thailand after my visa expired (it has since been increased to 500 baht per day). I decided that the threat of the fine was worth the risk of offending the administration lady, so I visited her in her office and very gently and politely asked her about my work permit. She again told me not to worry and that she had a friend who worked at Phuket Immigration who was taking care of the whole thing for her. I let her know about the fine that I’d have to pay if the non-immigrant B visa expired and she told me that as long as the work permit application was in process, there was no problem about the visa expiring. I had not heard of this before but she assured me that it was true and so I left it at that. My work permit application had started and the visa expiration didn’t apply – great!
2006 arrived, quickly followed by February and it was not until the middle of March that I was notified to go to Phuket Immigration to collect my work permit. I had begun work at the school in the previous May and, 10 months later, my permit to allow me to work there permanently was ready. I was taken to Phuket Immigration by an elderly school official (on the back of his motorbike) and I sat down with him at the desk as the immigration official produced my passport and the small mountain of paperwork that accompanied my work permit application. He opened my passport at the page containing my non-immigrant B visa and pointed at the date. “Here”, he said. “Expire. You pay fine.” He then got his trusty calculator and the figure of 13,600 suddenly appeared. “This”, he said. “You pay.”
I remember remaining quite calm when this was presented to me, even though it came as a shock. I smiled at the official and said, “No. I am not paying.” The elderly school official looked at me strangely and asked what my problem was. I told him that the administration lady had assured me that I would not need to pay a fine and so I was not paying it. There followed a lengthy conversation in Thai between the two officials seated with me, probably something along the lines of, “What’s his problem?”, “He says he’s not paying it.”, “Why not?”, “I have no idea.”
Whenever either of the two gentlemen spoke to me all I said was, “I’m not paying.” Eventually there was nothing that could be done and I was taken back to the school on the back of the motorcycle. I walked directly into the Director’s office and he was already in discussion with the elderly school official. The Director entered the office and I calmly and slowly told him the whole story and how I had been reassured not to worry and that I would not be required to pay any fine whatsoever. He nodded in a very concerned way and told me he would go and speak with the administration lady in the adjoining office. I considered blocking my ears as I was sure he would ‘let her have it’ for her monumental stuff-up. I fully expected the Director to return very red-faced and apologetically offer to pay the fine, which was none of my doing.
There were no accompanying loud voices and the Director returned very quickly, sat down and said very matter-of-factly, “Yes, you must pay the fine.” I started to argue my case (still very calmly) but his response was (and I’ll never forget it), “She was good enough to process your work permit, the least you can do is pay the fine.” I was staggered that the administration lady (who was always pleasant and friendly) was able to not only tell me something that was totally false but also be totally absolved of all blame for causing the incident in the first place. She obviously had no idea what she was doing and, as far as the Director was concerned, there was no problem with this. Not a word of apology, either.
The 13,600 baht fine was more than half of my monthly salary and I was staggered that the Director just assumed that (a) I had that amount ‘free’ and (b) that I would willingly just hand it over. I told him that the school should be liable for the penalty but he shook his head emphatically and said that the administrator could not be held accountable for simply trying to do her job. I immediately decided on two courses of action: (1) I told the Director that I would be seeking legal assistance and (2) I decided I would no longer be working at that school.
I managed to contact a legal representative in Bangkok (who spoke excellent English) and was told that, as a foreigner, I really didn’t have a leg to stand on. I was in the country illegally and my visa is solely my responsibility and there was nothing the school were legally required to do, even though they caused the whole problem. I thanked the nice lady for her time and sat in my office for quite a while thinking about what I could do. I eventually got up and marched into the Director’s office.
I did not knock (as I usually did, even when going to collect my salary) and stood over him as I told him that I had been speaking to a lawyer firm in Bangkok for the past hour, who told me that I had a very strong case for a worker discrimination case and that I could take the school to court and definitely win. The colour from the Director’s face disappeared and I sat down and told him that I didn’t want to take the school to court and for this story to make its way to the newspapers, etc. Before he could stammer out an answer I offered to split the fine 50/50 and he readily agreed. The bluff had worked beautifully.
The Director gave me 6,800 baht in cash, I went to the bank and withdrew the other half and I eventually had my work permit. I returned to show the Director my new blue booklet and added as I left, “By the way. I won’t be coming back next year.” The lessons I learnt from this debacle was that Thai authorities and administrators don’t necessarily understand the importance of visas as much as we do (most would be unaware of the fines or their worth) and just because someone processes something for you, you can’t assume that they know what they’re doing. My administrator obviously had no clue and this is what worries me most about the recent changes to the visa rules in Thailand. There will be thousands of inexperienced administrators in Thai schools suddenly entrusted with the whole work permit process and they will need to carry it out quickly and accurately, with no mistakes and within the visa time frame. To all the foreign teachers in Thailand putting their trust in these people to process their work permits, I have two words to say to you: GOOD LUCK.