In search of the average Thai
Are they earning 25% of what foreign teachers earn?
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.
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It is true what you say Rachel and probably the main reason native English speaking teachers are so under paid is due to the massive corruption here in Thailand. The average salary for native English speaking teachers has not gone up in over 10 years. Meanwhile the government in most cases has increased the amount of money to pay these teachers but it has just gone into the pockets of school administrators. I know someone who did some part time teaching for a local prestigious University. He was paid 1,200 baht an hour which was unheard of as all other part time native English speaking teachers previously were only paid 500 baht an hour. He ended up finding out he was paid the amount that native English speakers are suppose to be getting but never get due to all the corrupt people taking their cut! He just happen to be dealing with an honest person who gave him what he is actually suppose to be getting pay. And then Thailand wonders why they cannot attract enough good, qualified native English speaking teachers. It's because they're ripping native English speaking teachers off as corrupt people take the money that is suppose to go to pay them a decent wage. Also all the examples you gave were in the private sector as when your dealing with jobs connected with the government here in Thailand it is a whole another story. As due to the massive corruption only the people at the top and with the right connections make the big money but then it's at everyone else expense, just look at how bad the salaries are for most Thai school teachers.
By Thomas Husted, Thailand (26th October 2013)
Excellent article, and so true.
Besides, I've never understood why a western teacher in Thailand, who should have the minimum of an undergraduate degree to be able to teach here, is comparing what they earn with that of a marginally educated Thai street food seller or rice farmer. They should be comparing what they earn with a Thai who has an undergraduate degree that they earned in the west, as that is the only comparison applicable.
I've been here for years, most of my friends are Thai and most are from average middle-class families, as am I.
They all work for banks, insurance companies, small businesses, accounting firms, architects etc. and not one earns less than 70,000 baht a month -- all in their early 30s to early 40s, I might add.
My closest Thai friend is an accountant who recently accepted a new position paying her 100,000 baht a month. Sure, she has a degree from Chula and 8 years accounting experience but that salary is quite normal in her profession and at her level.
And yes, 30,000 baht a month is pathetic for a teacher with a university degree.
Thankfully, I've never made anywhere close to that, as even in my first job I started out on 52,000 and that salary rose every year afterward. When I finally stopped teaching, my last job was paying me 75,000 and, yes, that is comparable with a Thai salary for someone with similar qualifications and experience.
By Rachel, Bangkok (26th October 2013)
Is my girlfriend an average Thai? She is a nurse who graduated from university. She pulls in about 12,000 baht a month. Then she has to pay about 800 baht a month for life insurance at work. She also has a form of 401k she pays into. She pulls in about 10,000 after all is said and done. Granted she works a 40 hour week just like me. Monday-Friday, no evenings or weekends, same hours as me. She could make more working 60+ hours a week and having no social life to speak of. She's about as average Thai as most that I meet in regards to salary.
By Ron, Bangkok (28th August 2013)
Well, most of the Thai teachers where I am make less than the foreigners and people are usually amazed when they find out how much we make.
That said, most of the Thai teachers also run several businesses on the side (sometimes it even seems like school is just an afterthought for them). In some cases, the businesses they run earn 2-3X their salary from the school. Obviously, most foreigners aren't doing that.
By John, Issan (24th August 2013)
Yes maybe a teacher does earn 3 times more than the average Thai who works in a rice field or does manual labour on a road. Why would you ever compare yourself to that.
There are also many other factors to take in to account.
Location being key. Bangkok will have a much higher average than rural Thailand and this is where most English teachers work.
The minimum wage in Thailand is also very low compared to a western country. For example the average wage in the UK is close to seven pounds an hour and a teacher in the UK will obviously not earn 28 pounds an hour.
I think the main point of this article is to highlight the fact that 30k is a very poor wage for a teacher.
I think the only reason why teachers say the 4 times more than average is to make themselves feel better about their very low wages.
By Tim, Nointhaburi (23rd August 2013)
Yes Phil, I am sure the World Bank fudged the number for its own dark purposes. I have no doubt your gut feelings based on a few professional contacts in Bangkok is a much more reliable indicator of “average” than the results of a team of economists studying actual data.
The question was about the "average" Thai.
Average in the mean income, or around the 50% percentile in income?
Or average amongst those who are fluent in English and have studied abroad who you happen to know?
If you want to just shoot the breeze or promote a specific agenda, your anecdotal evidence works just fine.
But if you want a “real” answer to average income of Thais it is not hard to find as there are plenty of economists who make their livings as part of teams which try to find the best possible answers to this and similar questions.
Of course if you don’t like the numbers, just change your definition of “average” to meet your answer, works for me.
By Jack, Closer to my coffee cup than I was last time (20th August 2013)
Thais definitely seem to make more than the indicated quarter of a teacher's salary, but it seems the author is equivocating on what it means to be "average". Being a personal driver may be average in terms of prestige and academic requirements, but I seriously doubt most drivers in Thailand earn anywhere near 80 k / month.
Also, does the average Thai have a degree? If being a personal trainer requires a degree, I would hardly call that average, and graduates with a 6-day work week starting out at 9 k / month doesn't sound awesome, the extra perks notwithstanding.
By Laszlo, Bangkok (20th August 2013)
So the stattos quoting statistical charts and what have you are right - English teachers are actually earning more than those who toil in the rice fields or put stuff in bags at 7-11 - people who CAN and DO exist on almost nothing.
I'm sure that'll come as a great comfort to many teachers looking to come and work here.
Then again, that's always the problem with statistics. You can massage them whichever way you want.
By philip, (19th August 2013)
When you like more money don’t teach!
By Tedesco Michele, Suphan (19th August 2013)
I was offered a job in sales at a plaza. I had a contact, specialist skills, and was offered the same salary as I get teaching. They really wanted a farang and it was a few stores clubbing together to assist when farang customers came in.
Only issue was they wanted me to work the same hours as everyone else, 8am - 9pm, 13 hours a day, 6 days a week.I politely declined.
By Rob, Bangkok (19th August 2013)
GNI (Gross National Income) in US dollars per capita
2010 (according to the World Bank)
USA 47,010, Purchasing power parity 47,020
UK 38, 540 Purchasing power parity 36,580
Thailand 4,210 Purchasing power parity 8,240
This looks at average income per every man, woman or child, so the average (mean) income of workers would be around 30 to 40 % higher, although because of extreme income inequality in all countries the medium income would probably be a bit less.
There are obviously difficulties with measuring income and how accurate the World Bank’s data is open to debate.
Probably better to rely on anecdotal evidence of how much someone a poster knows makes or how much someone’s girlfriend makes as better evidence.
After all, this is a site for educators, right?
By Jack, Near a cup of coffee (19th August 2013)
You are not comparing apples to apples here. Try comparing foreign teachers to Thai teachers. You started off with this idea - then you went and investigated the salaries of private drivers and fitness instructors!
You know, the 'average Thai earner' is much different upcountry (where the majority of Thais live or come from) than what you typically find in or near Bangkok or other major hot spots in Thailand.
By Lisa, (19th August 2013)
"I would suggest those are like your ‘average Thais’ and your examples are rather selective actually."
I totally disagree. The two examples you have chosen are 'below average' - possibly even 'considerably below average'.
And when you think about it, wouldn't it be a shame anyway to compare an English teacher (probably with a degree) to someone working behind the counter at 7-11, regardless of how much the latter earns?
By philip, (18th August 2013)
"So the question I have is why haven’t they increased?"
They haven't needed to. There will always be a teacher willing to 'give it a go' for a year or maybe two and earn 30K a month. Then they leave and it's a case of bringing on the next teacher for a year. And so on......
By philip, (18th August 2013)
Yes there obviously some Thais who make more then foreign Teachers make and some who make less. But I think the real issue is that the average salary for foreign Teachers have not increased in years here while in other Asian countries they have. For example the average foreign Teacher salary in say Korea or Taiwan or at least twice as much as in Thailand. So the question I have is why haven't they increased? I've heard but I do not know for sure if it is true that most schools have actually been receiving more money from the government to pay foreign Teachers more but it never ends up getting into our pocket, I am sure you can guess why! Another factor I think is most countries in Asia for example such as Korea, Taiwan and even in most cases in China will only and can only hire foreign Teachers who actually have a legitimate 4 year University degree. While in Thailand most schools do not care as long as you're young and look good. So it seems almost any young good looking native english speaking can get a teaching job here but you certainly do not have to pay them much and they don't care either as they are just passing through, just my theories on the matter.
By Thomas, Thailand (18th August 2013)
My Thai GF works at HomePro where she has been for 3 years.
She makes 10,000 a month on average and that includes commission from sales. She works 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week.
7-11 staff get paid even less along with those workers in the agricultural North.
I would suggest those are like your 'average Thais' and your examples are rather selective actually.
By Steve, Bangkok (18th August 2013)
"20-30k Thai HR Manager at multinational"
I've worked in many multinational companies and got to know many Thai HR managers. This is a position where a good HR manager can literally name their price. Earnings of well over 100,000 baht a month are certainly not uncommon.
By philip, (17th August 2013)
Excellent article Ajarn World. I doubt that we can ever find the mythical average Thai. As Sam pointed out Thai teachers are quite well off. I have had the pleasure of working with many Thai English teachers in Hatyai and in Phattalung over the years and I can tell you that many of them earn as much if not more than my 30k a month. I know of one teacher in Phattalung earning nearly 60k a month and I know a few others who earn 40-50k a month. Granted they have been in the system for 20 or so years and are *cough* well qualified *cough*. They will get this salary for the rest of their lives once they retire at the age of 60. Aint the government pension system sweet?
By Lynn, Hatyai (17th August 2013)
I am somewhat surprised by the numbers that were mentioned in this article.
Here are some salaries of people I know of:
Salary Type of Job
6-8k worker in a local (no multinational) factory, waitress, security guard, janitor, etc
8-12k Starting government officer/teacher with a bachelor's degree, local administration staff
13-20 Secretary/administration staff in bkk, basic IT positions, accounting officer at a Thai Company
20-30k Thai HR Manager at multinational, factory workers for multinationals, bank teller
30-50k Thai government teachers with 15-20 years experience, accountant with more than 10yrs experience working for a Japanese company
35-80k Managers, engineers (Master's level). They often receive benefits as well.
100k+ Lawyer at SCG, executives
Private companies usually do offer bonuses at the end of the year, which can amount to 1-3 months salary, in some cases even more.
Also, the salaries in BKK are considerably higher than in the rest of Thailand.
Now, does the average ESL teacher earn 3 times the wage of an average Thai person?
- Western Teachers at Thai government schools and standard private schools: 25-45k
- Filipino teachers at Thai government schools: 7-35k
- teachers in mid to high-tier Private or International Schools: 45-110k
For a new teacher, one could say you may earn up to 3 times the salary of your Thai counterpart.
And although Thai teachers' starting salary may be lower, their automatic salary increase will close the gap and eventually surpass an experienced EFL teacher's salary.
By Matt, Thailand (17th August 2013)
I think your central point is correct, that FT's at run-of-the-mill schools don't make the sort of glamorous salaries they might imagine - that's just a result of supply and demand.
But the examples you give of "average" Thais - a driver who makes 80,000 baht as a chaffeur in BKK, and a trainer who makes 47,000 baht a month at a gym for hi-so people - even if those are the actual salaries, are not what the "average" Thai is making. I'd like to see actual stats about "average" salaries rather than exceptional cases like what you mention. (nearly 3000 USD a month as a driver is decent pay for a driver in the US, so if he's making that he must be rich in Thailand).
When I was working in a school in Issan, I was asked to grammar-check a letter to the MOE listing teacher salaries for our English Program. The most senior teacher, who had been at the school since 1983, had a monthly salary of 32000 and a monthly "bonus" of 9000, for a monthly total of 41000 baht, while the newest teachers who had just started were at around 10000 baht. As to what sort of "grey money" or benefits they also receive, who knows?
By Sam, near Shanghai (16th August 2013)