Often when I'm chatting with a relatively long-term foreign teacher, the conversation will turn to money and the topic of teacher salaries. And usually the person will remark that the average teacher salary in Thailand hasn't increased for the past ten years.
Always one to put a person right where the facts are concerned, I'll usually reply with, "no that isn't true. I was working at a language school in 1992 and I was pulling in 30,000 baht a month way back then. So the reality is that the average teacher salary in Thailand hasn't risen in twenty years - never mind ten"
Sobering thought isn't it? And yet numerous folks trot out the same old line, year after year, that if you come to work in Thailand, you'll be earning four times the salary of the average Thai.
So who exactly is this ‘average Thai' that acts as some sort of TEFL benchmark and is presumably earning 7,000 to 8,000 baht a month (25% of what a foreign teacher earns) I decided to go in search of this mythical creature and find out exactly who they are. Let's start with a bunch of very ordinary Thai drivers.
My wife works for a large Japanese automotive company, where she is in charge of logistics and general affairs. I'm not sure what her actual job title is but one of her responsibilities is to manage a team of six drivers - all Thai gentlemen aged between about 40 and 60.
At any one time, the company can have half a dozen expat Japanese managers working in Thailand. As you would expect, these guys are on fairly lucrative expat relocation packages. There's the luxury apartment, the international schooling for the kids - and of course they are all allocated their own personal driver.
These Thai drivers need no particular skills or talents other than to be able to drive a car safely. They don't need to speak any Japanese either. Their job is purely to be on call 24/7 to take Mr Japanese businessmen (and his family) to wherever they want to go. During the week, it may be taking the boss to business meetings and business lunches and at the weekend, the job will mostly involve taking the boss to the golf course for an early morning 18 holes or to perhaps a wedding party in the evening.
Once the driver has reached the destination, they then have to hang around for hours on end until the boss has finished his business, asks to be taken somewhere else, or just wants dropping back at home. I think we're all pretty familiar with the role of a personal driver - and in my opinion, it doesn't get more ‘average Thai' than that.
I've met all of these drivers personally on various company trips and functions. Even though I don't work for the company, I get invited along as the husband of management staff.
The drivers are all nice guys - what you would call good, honest, down-to-earth, working-class people. There are no airs and graces. They like a beer or three and they enjoy a turn with the karaoke microphone.
But what will amaze you is how much these ‘average Thais' earn.
The average starting salary for a Thai driver at this Japanese company is 30,000 baht a month (exactly the same as the average salary for a foreign teacher). But that's only from Monday to Friday. Any trip that the driver makes at the weekend is considered overtime - and there are always rounds of golf to be played and parties to be attended on Saturdays and Sundays.
I have no idea what their hourly overtime rate is but to quote my wife - "there isn't one of those six Thai drivers pulling in less than 80,000 baht a month"
Not bad is it for driving your boss to a golf club in Chonburi and then spending the next three hours smoking cigarettes, chatting with other drivers and playing games on your smart-phone (and the drivers I'm told, all have the latest in mobile phone technology)
Oh, I almost forgot. Last year the company gave the drivers an annual bonus of seven months salary on top of what they already earn. This year, the unions have negotiated an 8-month bonus. Anyone out there fancy being a driver?
Let's analyse another group of ‘average Thais', a younger group this time - and for this I need to look no further than my local gym and the dozen or so personal trainers that the gym employs. All of them are aged between 24 and 37.
I'm a well-known face at the gym - I'm one of only three foreign members in fact - and when I'm not busy killing myself on the treadmill, I enjoy nothing more than to stand around and chat with the personal trainers. It's a terrific way to practice your Thai for starters because there isn't one of them who can string a decent sentence of English together.
Thais love talking about salaries and money and my local gym staff are no exception. Many times they've told me that they are envious of what their counterparts earn at more expensive fitness chains like Fitness First for example. But what do my personal trainer friends really earn? Let's crunch the numbers.
Well, the starting salary is nothing to shout about. It's just 9,000 baht a month for a six-day week. But it doesn't end there of course. They receive an extra 300 baht an hour for teaching a class and 250-300 baht an hour for personal training. Most of the trainers will teach at least two classes a day and have three to four hours of PT.
The lowest earner at the gym is actually my wife's personal trainer. She is the lowest earner simply because by her own admittance - she's lazy. She would rather be standing in the gym watching TV and updating her Facebook page on her i-pad than counting reps and sets. She's also from a fairly wealthy family in the north-east and has a car and a new apartment to show for it. She takes home about 25,000 baht a month.
But for the harder-working personal trainer, salaries of 35,000 - 40,000 are not out of reach. The top earner - a very pleasant fellow by the name of Khun Tum - rarely earns below 47K a month.
Are these guys ‘average Thais'? Well, they all hold a degree in sport science from a government university. And from speaking to other Thais, they've told me that a degree in sport science is one of the easiest degrees to get in Thailand. Hmmm..... that all sounds pretty average to me.
I said at the beginning of this ramble that the average teacher salary hasn't increased in over twenty years. Surprisingly, after asking around, the entry level salary for a new Thai graduate working at a multinational or large company hasn't increased much in that time either. It's been approximately 15,000 baht a month since forever.
But where the difference comes in now when you compare 2013 with 20 years ago - is that your average Thai company employee now gets to a more realistic 30K a month much faster than they did in the past. Year on year earnings can by and large increase quite rapidly.
There's no doubt in my mind that your average English teacher in Thailand has been ‘left behind' where salaries are concerned. And what's even more frightening is if you ask yourself an honest question. How much will foreign teachers be earning in Thailand twenty years from now? No, surely not still 30K a month. I tell you something - I wouldn't bet against it.