Download The Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN is gearing up for closer economic integration in 2015 – which will include easier movement of workers.
To boost competitiveness with its neighbours, Thailand wants to improve national English language skills.
That means more jobs in Thailand for English teachers – including many from the Philippines.
But as Jofelle Tesorio reports, Filipino teachers in Thailand say they face discrimination.
I’m at a fund-raising party for the United Filipinos in Thailand – a group that seeks to promote better welfare for Filipinos working in the Kingdom.
They’re raising money for this year’s projects – and this includes support for Filipino English teachers working here.
Romney Sison is the group’s Secretary General.
“In many of our meetings in the association, one issue that’s always raised is the lower salary given to Filipinos compared to Western foreigners. It seems that there is no standard. Many teachers are discriminated against in their salaries because they are Filipinos. Some even accept salaries below the minimum out of desperation so they can have money to send home…”
Teachers make up the majority of Filipinos in Thailand, and the education sector is still unregulated.
Romney’s a teacher himself.
He considers himself lucky because he’s worked in the same international school for almost 14 years, which gives him a stronger bargaining position.
But others are not so fortunate.
Mayet Brobo is an English teacher in a Bangkok public elementary school.
“Filipino teachers are treated worse than white-skinned Western teachers in Thailand. They respect Westerners more. Imagine being told to your face that they prefer Westerners than Filipinos because they are better at English and we are inferior to them.”
Thailand began recruiting foreigners to teach English more than 10 years ago, as well as teachers for other subjects like Math and Science.
This was under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – he wanted foreign teachers to make up for the lack of English-proficient local teachers.
English is the language of business in the Philippines, so Filipinos were among the first to answer the call.
Currently twenty five per cent of all foreign teachers in Thailand are Filipinos.
But their salaries are smaller than Western native English teachers, says Mayet Brobo.
“Some Thai schools treat Filipinos as inferior to Westerners and not much different from Thais. They say, you look like a Thai, you work like a Thai.”
On the average, a native Western English teacher in Thailand gets between 750 and 1,000 US dollars a month, according to the TEFL Academy which supports many of these teachers overseas.
The majority of Filipino teachers get around half this salary.
Many of them complain that they have relevant university degrees, teaching licenses and experience in their field.
It’s not a recent controversy.
Almost two years ago, the Philippines Embassy confirmed that Thailand rates Philippines’ education system lower than several other countries.
Primary and secondary education in the Philippines runs for 10 years instead of the international standard of 12.
And one international school told Asia Calling that Filipino English teachers are paid less than native English speakers because their accent is different.
But many teachers reject this – the problem, they say, lies on the colour of their skin.
Philippine Embassy consul Edgar Badajos admits there is some discrimination against Filipino teachers.
“There’s nothing you can do with colour of your skin. If you are brown, you’re brown, if you’re white, you’re white. It’s like that here. Some Thais are very proud to have a white teacher. Therefore, in order to encourage white teachers, they pay more. There’s nothing you can do with the colour of your skin, no matter what you take, glutathione or whatever. So the only thing you can do is improve your skills.”
And he says that sometimes the problem lies with the Filipinos themselves.
“The other problem also, which is self-inflicted by our own Filipinos, is that they compete among themselves. It’s a question of supply and demand. There’s so much supply already. The tendency is for the salary to decrease because the Thais have so many choices. Some Filipino teachers even lower their own rates. The Thais say, okay, I’ll give you 300 dollars or 400 dollars, and some Filipinos are willing to accept a small offer.”
Many Filipino teachers who feel discriminated against do not complain – they’re afraid of losing their jobs.
They’re recruited by dozens of Thai agencies that have local government contracts, and allocated to district schools.
Karina Lama is an English teacher in a public school outside Bangkok.
She says her contract is regularly reviewed at the end of every school year – which makes her job very insecure.
Her fate lies in the hands of her recruiting agency, the English education coordinator, and her school principal.
“Every September we have to re-apply for the same job because our contract only lasts a year. If the school English coordinator and the principal still like us, they recommend us again to the Chulalangkorn University project, which is the agency that hired us. We have no security of tenure, no increase in salary. It’s been the same since 2006. Our contract only lasts for nine months which is the length of the school year. but we only receive one-third of our salary during school holidays in March and April, and no salary in October because that’s when recruitment starts over again . Our work permit also expires every year.”
Despite her uncertain contract, Karina still considers herself lucky – she has a salary of over 500 US dollars per month and formal working papers.
Many employers don’t even sponsor work visas for their Filipino teachers.
Instead they’re forced to use tourist visas, which need to be renewed at the nearest international border every two to four weeks.
Edgar Badajos from the Embassy in Bangkok says the Philippine government trying to deal with these problems.
“That is why we are trying to enter into a bilateral agreement with Thailand. If this won’t work, we are hoping that the Thai government will agree to government-to-government recruitment of teachers or other workers so we can set some minimum standards. Because what happens now is that recruitment is done by agencies, by learning centres, by anyone who can say they have a language school. They dictate the terms; there is no regulatory body that oversees it. We want to subject this to an official process and channels that we can monitor.”
A bilateral labour agreement between the countries could help solve several issues, including guarantees on the qualifications of recruited teachers.
But it won’t happen fast.
Back to the fund-raising party...
The United Filipinos in Thailand is also pushing for solutions, and has formed the Filipino Teachers Association.
Bing Arias, the Association’s president, asked Philippine President Aquino to support them when he visited Thailand last year.
“We formed the Filipino Teachers Association to cater to the needs, issues and concerns of teachers in Thailand. My only expectation is for the President and the government should hear the issues and concerns of the Filipino community living and working here in Thailand.”