It's been five years since I wrote an article on the topic of teacher agencies. Back in 2006, when the article was first posted on-line, teacher agencies were still in their infancy and I was trying to gauge how teachers felt about working for a ‘middleman' - which is basically what an agency is.
Reactions were very mixed. Some described agencies as devious money grabbers, while others felt they provided a necessary service for teachers who lacked the know-how or ability to approach schools directly.
Five years down the line and teacher agencies are still around. Oh boy are they still around. Hardly a day passes when another new kid on the block emerges and is advertising for ‘teachers wanted for schools in Bangkok" or something similar.
Let's face it. You can see why so many are attracted by the smell of relatively easy money. Put a phone on a desk, boot up a pc, grow the balls to call around a few schools and tell them you can provide them with the finest teachers in Thailand - and you're in business. You don't even need to rent office space. More than a few agents operate from dilapidated shop-houses deep in the sois of non-descript ‘moobarns' And who cares if you haven't got the first clue how to support your teachers or what getting a work permit involves. You can learn it as you go along. And that's just how many agents seem to operate.
In his excellent blogs written for ajarn back in 2008, Jason Alavi, himself a supplier of teachers to several schools, spoke out about why agents have such a negative image in Thailand. There were all sorts of reasons. Most agencies just drop a teacher off at a school and leave them to fend for themselves. Many agents are only concerned with keeping a school contract and ongoing business. Many agents have a dubious history of paying teachers late. And as you would expect, there are quite a number of agencies who offer little or no assistance in getting teachers the necessary work permits and visas. As Jason succinctly concludes "Most teacher agencies make a lot of false promises and give wrong or incorrect information from the very beginning to potential hires"
To present the flipside of the coin, Jason penned another blog titled ‘The Flipside of Teacher Agencies" in which he described in detail how teacher agencies can sometimes be a good option - for some teachers at least. Some agents do know the visa and work permit processes and regulations back to front. Some agencies have set lesson plans for teachers to follow. The agent can act as a buffer between the teacher and a demanding school administration department and finally, working for an agent can give the teacher the opportunity to mix with fellow ex-pat teachers - a sort of cure for loneliness if you like.
Whether you subscribe to Jason's pro-agency arguments or side with the negatives, one thing's for sure - teacher agencies are here to stay!
The main problem that teachers seem to have with agencies is the salaries on offer. Teacher agents and 30,000 baht a month salaries have suddenly become the Siamese twins of the Thailand TEFL game. They're joined at the hip. Did the agents all get together and hold a secret meeting? Did they all cheer when the chairperson decided that 30,000 baht a month was to be the going rate and the decision was unanimous? You decide.
There has been much debate on the topic of agents hiring teachers and more to the point - who pockets exactly how much? I'm reluctant to get into this argument because I've seen so many different figures banded around. If the poor teacher ends up with 30,000 baht in their monthly pay packet, how much is the agent receiving from the school? How much are they creaming off the top? I've heard figures as low as 10,000 and I've even heard of some agents pocketing a whopping 60K. In conclusion - no one really knows for sure. It's mostly barstool banter reserved for a particularly slow Friday night. Only the school and the agent know for sure what the true figures are.
But is 30K a month a fair salary for a month's work? I met with a Thai gentleman last week who is taking the plunge and setting up his own teacher agency (oh not another one I can hear you all cry!) He's a guy with all the right government connections and later in the year he hopes to be recruiting a veritable army of teachers to be placed in government schools. He asked me along for a face-to-face because he wanted my advice on how things stood in the Thailand TEFL business and what teachers considered to be a living wage. I was impressed that even before we got into serious conversation, he openly mocked the current salaries on offer. By the end of the meeting I managed to convince him - without much difficulty - that 45,000 a month as an absolute minimum should guarantee him some quality teachers. Well, at least it's a start. Whether he has the honor to keep to his word or whether he falls in with the ‘30K a month club', only time will tell.
If I can be allowed to stand up for agencies on one point, teachers need to understand that it's never ever a case of the school paying the agent X amount, the agent paying the teacher Y amount and the difference between X and Y becoming the profit. The maths isn't that simple. In most cases, contracts to supply a school with teachers are hard won. No agent walks into a school, holds a meeting with the top brass and everyone agrees that the agent will supply half a dozen teachers and they all live happily ever after. Now that would be a fairy story. In reality, the school will make requests for new equipment (perhaps a few shiny new computers for the IT lab) or the less subtle - ‘look at the size of our table, now see if you can pass anything underneath it'. Contracts are always hard won and little wonder they are agent gold.
But fact remains that most teachers working for agencies are still only earning around 30K a month.
There was a letter sent to the ajarn Postbox recently, stating that ajarn.com should stop accepting these advertisers and their ‘insulting' salaries. The letter writer even went as far as to say that ajarn.com needed to develop a conscience. I presume that meant the letter writer held ajarn responsible, or at least partly responsible, for the current state of salaries in the Thailand TEFL business. And of course there was the usual call for teachers to all get together, link arms and boycott these employers and hopefully make them see sense. These calls for an all-out teacher strike crop up year in and year out, if not in the ajarn Postbox then on the ajarn discussion forum.
And I'm still waiting for a letter-writer to lead the revolution.
I asked the ajarn forum members for their opinions. Should teachers force agencies to offer better wages and should teachers force ajarn to stop accepting job ads that don't pay enough? Those seem to be the issues.
A forum member named Frink suggested that educating the schools themselves was the real answer. "Advise schools on why they have no real need to go through agencies and how avoiding agencies could actually be in their best interest (higher salaries equal better teachers and retention of those teachers)"
Louis Minson, who runs the ajarn discussion forum from the UK but did his time in Thailand as both a teacher and academic director, rolled his eyes and said "Oh no, not this silly argument again. Ajarn.com has low paid teaching job ads, therefore it's Ajarn.com's fault that the average wage in Thailand is not higher. If you feel a job offers unacceptably low wages, don't apply for it. There are a whole load of Filipinos and other non-native English speakers out there who would give their front teeth for a 25k job"
This has always been an issue with me. Just because I or someone else wouldn't get out of bed for a job paying 30K or less, does that mean we should deprive someone else the opportunity by refusing to post the ad? Someone, somewhere is desperate for that job. And it's incredibly naïve to think that were the ajarn.com route closed down to any school or advertiser, then the sky would fall in on them. There are numerous other TEFL websites they can post the job on. They might even go out with a hammer and nail and tack it to the nearest lamppost. Heaven forbid, they may even struggle through the semester without an English teacher at all. A win-win situation for who exactly?
Louis continues, "those jobs are going to be available anyway based on local market rates, and while I used to recruit people who found our ad on Ajarn, just as many people would walk in not even having seen the Ajarn ad.
It's fairly simple. Thailand has a lot of schools which are not that well funded and all of them have an ideal that they should try and have at least one native speaking English teacher. It's not realistic for a massive number of schools, simply due to how deep in the Boondocks they lie, and no amount of money, were they even able to afford more than 30k a month, would attract farang teachers there.
Again, it's all about what you feel is an appropriate amount of money, don't feel it's enough, don't apply, don't take it. Ajarn.com is just reflecting what is out there in the mainstream Thailand TEFL scene"
Not all forum members agreed however. Yes, ajarn has to shoulder some of the blame.
One teacher, who admitted anything less than 90,000 a month is an insult, said "If I were seeking a teaching position in Thailand, ajarn.com would be the last place I'd go to...a last ditch effort. Ajarn is definitely contributing to the situation by allowing these dodgy agencies to post job ads. I mean it's not like ajarn is helping"
Another teacher made a couple of fair points. "Thai schools are not that poor - but the fact that some will take on anyone (without a degree or training etc) means that wages are kept low. This also means that teachers of this type are disempowered as they can only go for the bottom jobs which only pay for 10 months and sometimes have bad conditions.
Salaries have not increased much in the last ten years but the cost of living has risen a lot. If schools don't pay more, people will not be able to afford to stay here any more or they will be living month to month, essentially there will be a cycle of deterioration.
Personally, there are not many jobs on Ajarn.com that I would consider applying for, sorry to say it, but they do seem to target the bottom end of the market"
And from another teacher, who has now left Thailand's shores, "Ajarn has certainly done nothing to aid teaching salaries since the start of the century, and has most likely damaged them by making a song and dance about TEFL in Thailand and attracting the uneducated (and some educated) masses to the industry. With such a massive resulting increase in the supply of willing teachers, employers have had absolutely no need to raise salaries, and unlike in almost every other field of employment in Thailand which have seen decent yearly average salary increases, TEFL has barely moved, and may have even decreased"