Ben Bartee

The Thai ESL agent hustle

Thai ESL agents are largely unhindered in their business practices by morality.

What follows is a (mostly) unedited, exclusive excerpt from my recently published expat memoir, Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile:

Thai ESL agents are largely unhindered in their business practices by morality.

Usually, when things are going right, their graft only minimally impacts the farang (the Thai word for white foreigner) ESL teacher by driving down his wages (compared to what teachers can make via direct contracts with the schools).

When things take a left turn, though, as they often do in Thailand and as they did at [school name redacted], the fallout can reverberate to the farang, the often-innocent casualty of complex and opaque social institutional maneuvering between competing factions.

In this instance, the friction resulted from a kickback scheme: the previous agent – my agent, Tanawat's predecessor -- who had enjoyed a lucrative contract with the school was a cousin of the headmistress, Udom. Leveraging this relationship, the previous agent influenced Udom to agree on behalf of the institution she fiscally governed to an exorbitantly high payment for each teacher (on the order of $3,000/month). In exchange, the agent kicked back some of those hefty profits to his cousin, Headmistress Udom.

As illustrated in the above example, the Thai ESL industry basically operates on the same cliquey, tried-and-true principles as any "publicly subsidized, privately profitable" corruption scheme that the rich and highly influential upper crusts of society use to get ahead, only on a smaller scale, and often between family members.

At some point in the recent history before I arrived, an official in the provincial government (perhaps an honest one, but more likely just an equally corrupt rival) uncovered the Headmistress Udom's scam. In the bureaucratic wrangling that ensued, she was permitted to retain her position, but the contractual relationship between the school and her cousin, the agent, was severed. The foreign teachers in the employ of that agency, whom I never met, were subsequently let go to return to wherever they had come from – or, more likely, to be shuttled to a new school to serve as unwitting pawns in a whole new scam with a whole new set of players.

Enter my agent, the bespectacled golfer real estate mini-tycoon Tanawat, to fill the void. Via whatever connections he had, Tanawat managed to strike up a contract with [school named redacted] (this time, at something approximating fair market value under the watchful eye of some official). Headmistress Udom was none too pleased, given her loss of revenue, and expressed her displeasure by avoiding eye contact with me, with the Filipina English teacher* Tanawat had also placed at the school, and with Tanawat himself on the rare occasion he made an appearance at the school to glad-hand with the locals for the purpose of building business clout.

*Thai schools frequently employ Filipino English teachers because they are cheaper than farang English teachers but often speak just as solid English, thanks to European colonialism.

(Side note: Thailand is the lone political survivor of the colonial era in the entire Southeast Asia region, having never succumbed to any European power despite the best efforts of the French. You can, to this day, feel something unique in the air that smacks of uninterrupted, ancient, pure cultural lineage. In other polities within the region, you can both feel the social legacy of colonialism in borrowed religions and folkways as well as see it in the architecture and even -- in the case of Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia -- in the transliterated written languages that utilize Western alphabets.)

It's a well-deserved point of national pride in Thailand. Thai kids -- owing to the deficient education system in addition to a broader cultural unconcern with the outside world at large -- are widely geographically and historically illiterate. The vast majority, you would discover, have no idea Chile can be a country and not just a pepper, nor do they know who Genghis Khan was, among other geopolitical or historical factoids often assumed to be universal knowledge in the West. But each and every product of Thai public education sure as hell knows by kindergarten that no filthy European conquistador could ever buckle the knee of royalty.

One day, about two weeks into my tenure, Tanawat arrived at [school name redacted] bearing a gift in the form of a cake.

"My girlfriend make," he informed me. "Very special." Tanawat's "girlfriend," an impoverished farmer's daughter – his "mia noi" ("small wife"), as married businessmen's concubines are known in Thailand. She was actually more of a live-in prostitute than a girlfriend, but I didn't quibble.

Tanawat presented the cake to Headmistress Udom, accompanied by a deep wai of respect and some flowery Thai rhetoric expressing deep gratitude for her school's patronage of his teaching agency. She took it, grunted something as a formality, and disappeared into her office.

(He probably had to slip a few thousand baht under the table in an envelope along with the cake as well to keep Headmistress Udom quiet and satisfied with the new arrangement following the ouster of her cousin, like the crooked warden did with that highway construction guy in Shawshank Redemption, but I never asked.)

After Tanawat left, probably to bribe another official in the next town over as he made the rounds, Headmistress Udom walked into the sweltering teacher's office (no AC) and threw the cake box on the window-sill, presumably as an invitation (or, rather, a dare) to anyone who was interested.

None of the teachers, on account of where it had come from, dared to taste the tainted gift – forbidden fruit, as it were. That cake rotted in the searing and unforgiving humidity near the window for several days, untouched, until the cleaning lady dumped it unceremoniously into her trash bag one afternoon.

Find Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile at Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and a bunch of other places if you Google it — in digital and paperback form.

Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.


Most if not all the Thai schools I've worked for over the years, work along the lines of a corrupt set up, or benefits to all those on the 'top runners' form of system.

That's, where one agent I worked for would take the Thai EP manager, his wife, and 3 kids, abroad in the main semester break. I mean, Russia one year, and Vietnam the next - whereas it was of course no secret to one and all. (Besides, directors always get kick backs from agents, simply for the oppertunity to bid for the contract.)

At another, when the Thai EP manager, asked the Cameroonian agent, if he was going to give her some money as she was going travelling, after she retired. He did a double take, and looked at me with a look of absolute horror in his eyes, where she by contrast smiled at me like the cat, which was going to get the cream.

A foreigner, can have their own school (language centre), and become an agent in Thailand - there have been many over the years.

You can get in on the act in one way or another, if you choose, but not on the bottom runner - that's as a teacher, foreign, Thai, or otherwise.

By Richard Constable, Bang Na (16th August 2023)

Wow, you really hated Thailand. I have had bad experiences from corrupt agents in SEA, but Thailand was one of the better ones. Maybe it was that particular school.

Greasy palms are everywhere, in every country, these guys just seemed to be very upfront about it.

By Tia, Thailand / Australia (16th August 2023)

'Thai schools frequently employ Filipino English teachers because they are cheaper than farang English teachers but often speak just as solid English, thanks to European colonialism.'

Do we have to bring Colonialism into everything? You didn't even get it right. The European colonisers of the PI were the SPANISH. Very little English was spoken in SPAIN at that time - they had yet to develop themselves as a holiday destination for Brits.

the English speaking coloniser was the US. At that time having gained independence the US was no longer a part of Europe.

Again, do we have to bring Colonialism into everything?

By Mokwit, Bangkok (16th August 2023)

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