I recently drove through my old neighbourhood and saw that two of the large English language schools which had previously been there for years had closed down. Although I did see a new but smaller school had popped up down the road a bit.
This got me thinking about the nature of the ESL industry. Many comments on ajarn.com seem to assume owning a language school is the same as having a license to print money and vast riches are acquired by exploiting the English teachers.
Many of the larger language school chains that dominated the industry when I first came to Thailand have either gone out of business or have scaled back considerably. It appears the business side of the industry is extremely competitive due to the low start-up costs and overall low barriers of entry into the industry. The churn seen in the industry would seem to indicate it is a tough racket to make a buck in; after all if you are raking in the dough, there is no reason to close down.
While a look through the job ads on ajarn.com shows the need for ESL teachers in Thailand has not dried up, it also does not appear ESL to be a growth industry in the 21st century in Thailand. While I believe English will remain the world's lingua franca for the foreseeable fortune providing tens of thousands of English teaching jobs globally, there are reasons to believe there are many factors which will put downward pressure on wages and earnings here in Thailand for ESL teachers and school owners for the foreseeable future.
For example, stagnant economic growth, declining levels of foreign investment into the country, a shift in tourist arrivals from the West to more coming from Asia and the demographic trends with Thai families having so many fewer children, and most of the demand for teaching English comes from children and younger people.
Although we can find a few exceptions, obviously salaries are higher in rich countries than in poor countries. The vast majority of migration for employment is in the form of people from poor countries going to rich countries to have a chance to earn higher salaries. While there are some exceptions (such as NGO workers) most people going from rich countries to work in poor countries can expect lower salaries.
Are ESL teachers in Thailand actually underpaid and underappreciated? I think in every occupation and job I have ever had (and there have been a higher number of both) in many countries around the world, the majority of workers thought they should be paid more and should be given a higher level of respect than they are currently getting. So there is nothing completely unique about ESL teachers in Thailand complaining about low salaries and being underappreciated (except maybe the quantity and intensity of the whinging). So I decided to do a quick check on the topic.
I decided to look at the most recently job ads (no cherry picking) for a few locations and compare the salaries and also compare the ratio of the salary compared to the countries GNI as measured by the World Bank in 2015
Because GNI statistics are listed in US dollars I converted all figures to US dollars using the latest currency convertor. I used actual figures and not purchasing power parity numbers as the ratio should take the cost of living into account.
The GNI per capita index attempts to identify the total income produced in a company per people; every man, woman and child. It is hardly the perfect measure but it does give a somewhat reliable indication of how wealthy a country is on average and gives a basis for calculating ratios of how a salary in a country compares to average income of the rest of the population.
I am not trying to claim this is any type of scientific research with a high level of reliability or validity, just a quick check to get a basic idea about whether or not ESL teachers in Thailand are underpaid and exploited.
All of the following salaries as listed in the job ads seemed aimed at pretty new teachers without high level of experiences, I realize there are jobs with higher wages in all the locations, but for comparison's sake I tried to find the latest job ad on either ajarn.com or Dave's ESL Café for entry level positions.
Here is what I found
Yearly ESL salary: 997,500 Baht ($28,769)
GNI per capita: 22, 500 (I was surprised, I though Saudi Arabia was quite a bit richer than this)
Yearly ESL Salary/GNI per capita ratio: 1.28
Yearly ESL salary: (Assuming a 12 month contact) 21,701
GNI per capita: 27,440
Yearly ESL Salary/GNI per capita ratio: 0.79
Yearly ESL salary: 23,445
GNI per capita: 40,580
Yearly ESL Salary/GNI per capita ratio: 0.58
Yearly ESL salary: 12,115 (The ad said between 35 and 45,000, but I went with the lowest number)
GNI per capita: 5, 620
Yearly ESL Salary/GNI per capita ratio: 2.16
These results indicate, when comparing ratio of salaries of ESL compared to the average income of the population, ESL teachers in Thailand do quite well, in fact much better than in the other locations (although maybe behind what is found in China or Vietnam which I did not check on, maybe next time).
Teaching English in most rich countries (including in the home lands of native English speakers) would almost always put a person in the lower 50% income bracket, while in Thailand, right off the boat one is well into the upper 50% bracket.
In US dollar or Euros, the wages paid to teach English in Thailand seem low compared to average wages back home, but compared to local salaries, they are quite high. If ESL teachers in Thailand are expecting salaries to rise considerably in the near future or expect to get any sympathy from local workers, I suspect they will be disappointed.
Wages are determined by supply and demand, and it is likely demand will stay soft and supply is not decreasing. I doubt we will see any major increase in average wages in the near future.
Determining whether the wages paid to ESL teachers is "fair" or not requires a subjective judgement, but after looking at the ratio of wages paid compared to the level of economic development of the economy, my subjective opinion is English teachers in Thailand don't do all that bad.