I first wrote about the topic of teacher placement agencies (TPAs) back in 2006. Back then, there were relatively few TPAs recruiting foreign teachers in Thailand compared with the number who operate today - but even in those early days, there were certainly a good few complaints about them.
I felt it was time to revisit the whole TPA debate having read this horror story about a Thai agent who actually forged visas for two of his foreign teaching staff and thought they could get away with it.
And the reason / excuse the agent gave upon his arrest? "The Thai visa process is an overcomplicated process and sometimes agencies like mine bend the rules to try to simplify matters and speed things up"
The two unfortunate teachers, blissfully unaware of their crime, were stopped by airport immigration and ended up doing jail time in Bangkok. The mind boggles. Let's all hope and pray that this is an isolated case because no teacher deserves that sort of punishment, regardless of how naive they were.
I accept that this was a worst case scenario, but teachers and TPAs still seem to be having plenty of problems with each other. Let's investigate the situation once more.
Points to ponder
Before we go any further, it's important to keep the following points in mind;
1) There are still decent TPAs out there. I don't know whether the good TPAs outnumber the bad ones or vice versa, but there are TPAs who look after their foreign teachers, pay salaries on time, support their teachers with coursework and act as that all-important buffer when problems or misunderstandings arise between the teacher and school management (as they frequently do).
It would be grossly unfair to tar all PTAs with the same brush and say they are all bad. It's simply not the case.
2) Bad news travels faster than good news on the internet. We rarely / never get comments from teachers along the lines of "I work for a fantastic agency and here are the reasons why" and likewise, despite my numerous invitations to the 'better TPAs' to put forward their case on ajarn.com, none of them have ever taken me up on the offer, which is rather a shame.
3) TPAs - the better ones of course - are still a decent choice for the 'new arrival' in Thailand. I've heard many teachers say with the gift of hindsight - 'find work with a TPA, get a year of teaching under your belt, learn the ropes - then in your second year, start applying to schools directly. That still sounds like good advice to me.
What is a TPA?
The concept behind the TPA is perfectly simple. A school or institute, for various reasons, is finding it difficult to employ decent teachers, so it turns to a 'middle man' to recruit its teaching staff. Enter stage right - the good old teaching agency. The TPA asks a few questions of the school - "How many teachers do you want? How many classes need to be taught? What are the levels of the students? What do they need to learn?", etc, etc - and the TPA is in business.
I don't know the financial nitty-gritty but I'm pretty sure that a 'per teacher per year or per semester' figure is decided upon, and in addition, the TPA will often make a 'charitable donation' to the school to gain a foothold and become that school's official teacher supplier.
TPAs are fiercely protective of their client list. The last thing TPAs want is for the names of their client schools to fall into the wrong hands and competitors approaching the schools directly and undercutting the price.
Why use a TPA?
We need to examine the reasons why many schools and universities are washing their hands of the task of hiring teachers and deciding to call in the middle men (the TPAs). There are a number of common reasons.
Many institutes just don't have the Thai administration staff with the ability to distinguish between a career teacher and the guy who's going to ride off into the sunset the moment he gets his first pay packet ("but he seemed so genuine at the interview") A lot of schools have been bitten many times by 'fly-by-night' teachers.
The whole situation has become painfully embarrassing for them and just too difficult to manage. Not only that, but relationships between the school and student parents can become strained. No parent wants to constantly hear their son or daughter come home from school and tell them stories about their foreign English teacher not turning up for work again. After all, it's the parents who pay the school fees.
So you can see the appeal for the school when along comes a TPA and promises to supply them with the best and most qualified teachers in Thailand (and it's incredible just how many TPAs have the 'best teachers in Thailand' on their books) No more interviewing and selection headaches. No more serial absentees. No more alcoholics or recreational drug users. Nothing but an endless supply of great teachers.
And if that wasn't enough to get the school owner jumping for joy, in many cases, the TPA even promises to replace any foreign teacher the school doesn't like (for whatever reason) - with another foreign teacher who might prove more popular. Many TPAs do make those kind of promises.
Employing foreign teachers can also be a major headache in terms of administration and paperwork. The school has to apply for a teacher's licence and a work permit. A school representative might need to make multiple trips to immigration to organize a teacher's long-stay visa. All of these processes require a mountain of documentation and photocopying as the teacher makes their way through the beauracratic maze and gets the bounced around from one government department to another.
Many schools - those who still hire teachers directly - often have an 'admin person' whose sole responsibility is to take care of these mundane tasks and cut through the notorious Thai red tape (and top marks to the school if they do) However, many schools are still utterly clueless when it comes to the job of making a new teacher 'legal' (especially if hiring foreign teachers is new to them)
So what's the solution? What's the easy way out? Answer = to hand over responsibility for all that stuff to a TPA. Let them take care of it.
It's not what you know
Many Thais, often with little or no experience in the education, teaching or recruitment fields, will decide to embark on a career as teacher placement agent. One day they're a florist or an accountant in a struggling business, the next day they're a fully-fledged TPA. All you need are contacts - proving the old adage, it's not what you know, it's who you know.
You would be surprised at just how many Thais will have a best friend or relative who is responsible for the hiring of teachers at a local school. Over a coffee and a chat, one of them lets slip how much trouble her school is having finding good, reliable teachers. The other person immediately sniffs a lucrative business opportunity. Minimal research then fills in the blanks. A desk, a phone, an ad on ajarn.com and before you can say "don't worry about a work permit" another new TPA joins the ranks.
Nowadays, for every teacher placement agency that folds, it seems like there are two new kids on the block looking to fill the gap they've vacated. It's not a situation that's going to change in the forseeable future.
Good money in it?
Teachers working for TPAs in Thailand generally make in the region of 30,000 to 35,000 baht a month (Filipinos considerably less). Most of the 'dodgier' TPAS will pay at the lower end of that scale. Always the big question on a teacher's lips is how much money is the school paying the TPA? In other words, how much is the TPA skimming off the top when I'm the one who does all the hard work in the classroom?
I find this a moot question. Who should care about how much profit the TPA is making? They have overheads. The TPA has often had to go out there and secure and negotiate contracts. There's also the 'charitable donation' I mentioned earlier. I'm sure your average TPA could list plenty of other business expenses they have.
I'm all for teachers earning a decent salary (and in my opinion 30K is just not enough) but there has to be profit in it for the TPA as well. And I'm talking about the good TPAs here of course.
So how about your opinions?
I've never worked for a TPA so how do I know what really goes on? It's always best to get the views of those on the front-line. Please keep in mind that the comments from different teachers below are at least five years old (about the time I last updated this article) but that shouldn't make them any less relevant. I'm sure the same old problems exist today, probably even more so. Anyway, here are some of your TPA experiences.
Any new comments on this article (hopefully) will appear in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
Chris says it's only for the money
Just a couple of very brief comments, maybe somewhat subjective, but definitely based on my own earlier experience in Thailand and on that of a few acquaintances and close friends:
No, TPAs are not a prerequisite for the employment chain. Anyone with the confidence to be a teacher, has the confidence to organize himself with a list of schools and do his own walk-in interviews. It is a proven fact that this formula works best.
The vast majority of these agencies, alas, are doing it strictly for the money and exploiting the situation that a great many schools in Thailand do not have the foggiest idea of how to go about recruiting anyone from janitors to directors of studies.
The schools are easily taken in by the smooth-talking ex beach-bar bully from Phuket who swears that all his teachers are qualified and experienced. This way, the schools themselves never get to see these ‘qualifications', often assuming that the placement agency is the employer, and that the agency has provided the necessary working documents.
Dee escapes the TPA shackles
I make very little money while the agency sells me for a profit - a profit that goes straight into the boss's pocket. He charges the high school I'm at about 450 an hour and pays me 250 baht an hour. I am a professional teacher with 17 years experience, an MA in English and a teaching credential (the real thing). The agency has not secured my visa, I'm on a tourist visa. They did not set up housing, I'm at a guest house. I'm working full time and I don't even have a damn kitchen!
I don't get it. Why do people work in Thailand? I've been coming here for years on holiday and, yes, it's a great country, but the pay is inexcusable! I'm teaching so a guy can get rich? I worked in China (a third world country, despite the propaganda) and was reimbursed my full air fare, given a free luxury two-bedroom apartment and transport to/from work. And my salary was $200 more than the lousy $600 I make here. As I said, I don't get it. Why would any qualified person work here?
Welcome to my dining table - in the kitchen
I wanted to make a comment on the teacher agencies acting as a middleman for schools and instructors. I think it's a complete waste of my time and I personally don't think that teachers need agencies to help them out. This isn't a modeling agency and we don't need agents as this isn't a cat-walk event.
Some agencies pretends to have an office and it's usually a dining table in their kitchen. I had been looking for work and e-mailed my resume to numerous places. One of them in particular caught my attention. I finally made up my mind and went to meet him. As his address was not familiar to me, I didn't really know where I was going though I was shocked when i got to his "so called office" -a dining table with a laptop.
The man had the nerve to ask me for a 30,000-40,000 Baht commission once he helped me find work. I did ask him why he didn't deal with the school directly... he said "the school wouldn't even know that I'm your agent, and when you go in for the interview don't tell them who referred you to the school - make believe you applied to it yourself". I ran out of there in five minutes and it scared me to death.
Jim's scam agent story
I know of a fake agency that is taking hordes of money from unsuspecting ESL teachers searching for jobs online. I fell prey to them about three months ago, mostly due to my lack of knowledge regarding typical salaries paid in various provinces.
I received an e-mail from the agency (whose name is getting splattered on many ESL discussion boards) who advertised a very high salary being offered by a school in Thailand. His e-mail mentioned a fee up-front for visa processing and later a 25% fee from the first month's salary.
No excuse, but my time has been running out here in China where I'm teaching at a bilingual school in Guangzhou, so I wanted something concrete and was willing to pay well for it. At first the agent in Thailand asked me to send him my credentials and all original documents to him, which I simply refused to do. I told him he would get copies and would have to deal with that or the deal was off.
He accepted the copies and then wanted a total of 2500 Baht for the processing, which I wired to him via Western Union. He sent me an e-mail detailing not only his address in Bangkok but also his bank information for money transfer (in case Western Union didn't work out) and phone numbers.
Long story short, I should have known it was a scam because he was claiming that the school was offering 48,000.00 Baht a month for it's ESL teachers (an outrageous amount for that area, which I would have known had I researched it a bit more).
After wiring him the money, he disappeared off the face of the earth for a while until finally I received an e-mail from him, claiming the agency had changed their policy and could no longer wait until the teacher was placed in the job because so many of their (supposed) past bad teachers still had not paid their 25%, so he required me to send half of the 25% salary cut now in order to ensure he was going to collect his fee for getting me a job.
I flat out refused and basically told him what I thought of him and informed him that I would be notifying Dave's ESL Cafe of his little scam and that I had done some research and obtained an e-mail address from the school directly. The school had told me that the whole agency process was a scam and that many other ESL teachers had complained about getting trapped.
Obviously, I never heard from him again. I've kept all the receipts from the Western Union wire and all the original e-mails from this scumbag and it's obvious to me that he is definitely in Bangkok and still scamming and sucking money from the pockets of unsuspecting ESL teachers.
My agent makes a mint
I found out recently what my employer is receiving. He runs an agency here in Thailand. He charges the school on a per student basis, not a per hour basis, and his prices are pretty much in line with what other agencies are charging upcountry. He charges 500 baht per student per term. That may not sound like a lot but here are the figures for last year......
Revenue: approximately 980 students in the school x 500 baht= 490,000 baht. multiply that by two terms and you get 980,000 baht
His monthly expenses: My salary 26,000. My assistant 7,000. Supplies 1,000. Utilities 2,000. Total: 36,000 per month x 12 months= 432,000 plus a bonus of 26,000 for me = 458,000 baht for expenses
But he also has expenses for his small office in his house, which come to about 66,000 baht a year.
Total expenses= 522,000 Total profit= 458,000 per year or 38,000 a month for this one school.
He has two schools on his books and his income approaches 76,000 baht on his total outlay of time, which is about 3 to 4 hours a week. iMost of the time, he sits around surfing the internet, watching UBC at home and in the evening, he teaches private classes.
The only time I see him is when he stops by the school to collect his pay on the last day of the month.
As we are both foreigners, my outlay of time is disproportionate to his outlay of time for the income involved. I think the schools are the ones who lose out, not the foreigners.
The problem is that the agencies are selling a product and claiming it is superior, but the teachers they are providing are not up to snuff - in essence the schools are being cheated. And ultimately the students are. Teachers work to the level that there income is, like all humans. I will put on a better class if I am paid 50,000 a month versus 26,000 a month. You know this. So I won't keep it up. And I find it harder to work for the school when I know what is happening.
Thumbs up for TPAs
As long as the agent is paying the teacher something around the going rate I don't see a problem. The teacher always has the option of asking around at a few schools and landing an 80,000 baht job for himself - or perhaps something just a little lower - if these scenarios abound.
I think the annoying ones are where the school pays seven or eight hundred baht an hour, and the agent pays less than half that to the teacher, while having few significant overheads to meet.
To be honest, I can see the day when agencies are the main employers of teachers. I know in England, people are leaving their permanent jobs and signing up with supply agencies. Basically you get all the perks and none of the shit and you get to pick and choose when you work and when you don't want to. I think again it comes down to supply and demand. Think about how many computer programmers etc are self employed or work on a contract.
I know in Japan that some of the language schools work like agencies. Shane for example sends teachers to a different base each day. Also the teacher may be asked at short notice to go to a different school that day. Agencies may not be good for the idea that students/teachers develop a relationship over time, but who gives a shit about that? IMO teaching agencies empower the teacher.
This allows the teachers to teach and not deal with the bullshit and Thai school politics. Also the teacher has someone to turn to for assistance. That is great, but teachers should still have their take increased to 50% of whatever is being charged. You have a lot of greedy people out there starting agencies that have no idea about education and quality.
Give it a year or two and every mom and pop is going to be opening an agency to cash in on the huge pot.
Agencies fill a gap in the market
I don't have a problem with agencies. I think agencies have a place to fill in the market, either by providing teachers to schools who are incapable or unwilling to get teachers themselves. Or by providing short-term cover teachers the way supply agencies do in England.
Of course I do have a problem with ‘bad agencies'. The ones we hear about all the time. The ones who don't provide work permits and medical insurance. Low pay isn't an issue for me. If you are willing to work for 20,000 Baht a month then that's your problem but the agency should be forced to provide a work permit and foreign workers really need medical insurance in this country as well.
Too many cowboys?
The really problem as I see it is not agencies but cowboy agencies, and this is unfortunately what most agencies in Thailand are.
In the UK a teacher placement agency would assume some responsibility for checking out the school you were going to and would have the job of checking your qualifications and generally making sure the whole process was legal. In Thailand most agencies just take the money from the school and pocket the profit.
They don't care about the teacher - or the client for that matter. It is though they believe that the supply of teachers and clients is endless so it doesn't matter how you treat them as long as you're making as much profit as possible. At the end of the day what Thailand needs is more professional, well-run agencies to drive the cowboys out of business.
Unfortunately I don't think we will get many of those in the near future.
A word from an agent with a different approach?
As an agent may I put my two pence worth in? As opposed to most agencies I do not, and never will employ teachers to work in Thai schools. I work purely as a middle man locating teachers for schools to employ directly.
All the schools I represent I visit and check their teacher's contract first. The schools MUST provide all legal paperwork for the teachers. I charge a one off fee to the school of 20,000 or 25,000 baht per teacher for a one year contract.
If the teacher breaks the contract for any reason I replace them free of charge. I try to interview all teachers prior to taking them to the school to introduce them. Due to time restraints set by the school I have been known to telephone interview, both locally and internationally.
I try as much as possible to get the best salary and conditions for the teachers, which is not easy. I never charge the teachers anything. Once the teacher is in place at the school I act as an intermediary if there are any problems between the schools and the teacher. I act as a taxi driver taking the teachers for interviews at schools, many times all weekend.
I am selective of the schools I work with, as I am with the teachers I represent. I give as much as I can - a professional service that the schools and the teachers appreciate.
I am on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for both teachers and schools. I don't believe there is another agency in Thailand giving the same service, and I have been told recently I am the least expensive in Thailand.
Finally, I have taught in Thai schools for over 12 years and understand the difficulties encountered by many foreign teachers.
Ajarn.com - I'm almost 100% sure that this agent went out of business because I haven't heard from him for a good few years. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.
Jason Alavi, who runs a TPA in North Bangkok, and is still very much in business, wrote two very interesting blogs on the topic of Thailand teacher agencies back in 2008. Again, they are six years old but still as relevant today. In the first blog, Jason attempts to analyze just why teacher agencies have such a negative image. In the second blog, he outlines why teacher agencies might be a perfect fit for many teachers.