We've all heard horror stories about working for terrible agencies in Thailand and other countries. Well, as I have mentioned in the past, I had the opportunity to experience such an agency first-hand. Not anymore, of course, being that I was fired from the agency for no reason about a month ago, but I did make almost an entire semester.
Actually, I exaggerate. I wouldn't say I have a "horror story" per se, but rather a three-ringed circus. I found the whole ordeal quite amusing for the most part, although the never getting paid on time or the correct amount, along with the constant harassing emails from whom I can only assume to be a mentally imbalanced employer did get a bit tiresome by the end. I won't name specific agencies because I'm not trying to finger point or name stain; I just figured that I'd throw out a few warning signs to other potential noobs (nerd talk for newbie) teachers like I was.
First, I do have a few friends working for agencies that have no problems with them. And to those new in the teaching field, agencies are among the easiest to get jobs with when you're first starting off. Hiring directly with government schools, language schools, and international schools almost always want some kind of experience on your resume, whereas the few agencies I interviewed with last year didn't seem to have this as a priority. So, working for a decent agency can rid you of the catch-22 problem of needing to get experience to have it on a resume.
That said, if you have the time or ability, it's certainly worth looking around online and through friends for reviews of the agency with which you interview and/or get offered a job. If I had of done this when I started, I would have found more than a few scathing reviews of the agency I signed on with and several of its aliases. Note here: I've heard tell of other agencies doing like mine in this regard in the Bangkok area as well, using several different names to advertise for the same company to deter name recognition. Very clever, I'll hand it to them. So, even if you're a new teacher, don't just jump at the very first opportunity you get. If you're a confident teacher, there's certainly no harm in telling someone you'll get back to them. Unless you're truly desperate, try to at least arrange a second interview before signing.
If you do sign a contract, note a few things. First, from what I'm told, Thai-written contracts are the only truly valid documents in the courts here. I could be wrong, but from everyone I've asked, if there are two versions of your contract (English and Thai), the Thai one takes precedence. I note this because after I started, not only did my employer change parts of my English contract AFTER I had signed it (namely our pay date and an extra page of stipulations), but I later found out that the Thai version of my contract - which I foolishly signed - had all kinds of different things that I didn't even know existed.
One such amusing stipulation that I found out was on the Thai contract was that if I in "any way" harmed the reputation of my school or agency, or incurred any kinds of physical or intellectual damages, I was liable to pay the agency some ridiculous compensation which had an interest rate applied to it. Obviously, had I known that was on the contract I was signing, I would have laughed and walked out. But hey, naivety got the best of me, and my employer seemed trustworthy upon the first meeting.
Next, if you do take the job, note the attitudes of any teachers who have been with the agency/company for any period of time before. This isn't always reliable, as you'll always have the sourpuss teachers who can't be happy with anything, but veteran teachers' attitudes towards their agency can give you a hint for what you're in for. The very first day of my last semester, for example, the two teachers out of seven who carried over had some interesting stories to tell about those that the "new crop" of us were replacing. And, funny enough, the very same things that happened to our predecessors (not getting paid, harassing calls and emails, etc.) happened to us.
My final piece of advice: while any employer may offer you a work permit, be realistic about it. Agencies exist because there is typically a high teacher turnover, and someone has to deal with the hiring of new ones fairly frequently. Getting a work permit is a rather tedious process. People are lazy. Add these things together, and you can understand why getting a work permit may be something that never happens for you. And, without a work permit, even if your employer does abuse you in some way, you have absolutely no legal rights in Thailand... because, technically, you're working illegally.
I certainly can see the point in agencies. If managed correctly, they can use the fee they get from your salary from the school to free the school from worrying about substitutes, legal paperwork, and school materials. But obviously this isn't always what happens. It's not only unfair to you as the employer, but also the students and other teachers of the school you're working at. While I stuck it out at my school (even after getting fired) out of regard for my students and colleagues, it's certainly not something everyone would be willing OR able to do.
Luckily for me, due to our loyalty to our school, we are being hired on directly next semester without the agency. But this will certainly not always be the case. Am I bitter about my semester with an agency that still owes me over 15,000 baht, didn't pay on time a single time, never paid the correct amount, sent threatening emails on at least a weekly basis, and eventually fired me when they realized the school I was working at actually liked me (thereby degrading the agency's power)? Believe it or not, no. Because without this experience, I'd probably be just as naive as I was six months ago.
But would I do it again? Absolutely not.