Right qualifications, wrong colour skin
Increasing numbers of Filipinos are teaching English in Thai schools, but white colleagues get paid more to do the same job, regardless of skill
When Lyndsay Cabildo booked her ticket t o Thailand in 2012, she had been promised 2,000 baht per day to work as a part-time English teacher supplying cover to schools around the country. Once she’d had enough of travelling to work in various far-flung places, she obtained a fulltime job teaching English at a public college in the southern province of Phatthalung.
The salary she was initially offered by her employment agency was 15,000 baht — the starting wage for state workers with a bachelor’s degree. But for a white European teacher from a non-English speaking country, she learned that price would be doubled, to 30,000 baht.
“Our salary was dictated by our skin colour and not our ability to deliver, or the credentials we worked so hard for,” she said.
Ms Cabildo’s experience is a common one for the thousands of Filipinos who seek jobs as teachers in Thailand each year.
Although their salaries are higher than what they might earn in the Philippines, as the increase in schools offering English programmes drives higher demand for teachers, they often face discrimination.
The 33-year-old has a master’s degree in psychology, a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) and can speak
Italian, Tagalog, a little Vietnamese and Thai. “White Europeans only have fair skin,” she said.
ON THE WHITE TRACK
The frustration of Filipinos seeking teaching jobs in Thailand can be seen in letters and blogs on ajarn.com, a website for foreign teachers. There are incidents of Filipinos being turned down for not being native speakers and of schools hanging up the phone as soon as an applicant mentions his or her nationality.
One Filipino even reported that a school replaced qualified and experienced Filipinos in their English programme with less suitable Westerners, and tried to disguise Filipino staff as being Thai.
Most top international and prestigious Thai schools that offer English programmes or bilingual education hire only native speakers, but even when a Filipino manages to secure a job, rarely does their pay come close to that of a white candidate.
“My Thai boss once explained that he couldn’t do anything about the situation since Thais like to see white people on school billboards, because it’s more appealing than someone like me, who looks like everyone else in Thailand,” Ms Cabildo said.
“I understand that accent is very important. However, when a school advertises that it wants native English speakers, it means teachers with white skin.”
Filipino teachers are often as proficient in English as their native-speaking counterparts, but a hierarchy based on race and skin colour seems to dictate beliefs about professionalism.
Ms Cabildo recalls an incident involving a teacher from Cameroon who had been teaching in Thailand for 20 years.
Despite being much more experienced, the teacher was put under Ms Cabildo’s supervision “because he was darker”.
Even at the Education Ministry, the idea that white people are automatically native English speakers, and therefore superior English language teachers, is prevalent.
When discussing the desirable credentials for teachers who would be tasked with conducting English courses for ministry employees, some senior officials went so far as to suggest that African-Americans may not have the proper accent, so should be avoided, according to an Education Ministry source who asked not to be named.
“It reflects the Thai obsession with the ‘standard English accent’, without even considering the fact there are many English accents, even within English-speaking countries,” the source said.
When Woodward Uy Villalino started applying for jobs in Thailand, he quickly got used to seeing ads for native English speaking teachers. He was initially rejected by two schools, while four failed to respond to his applications.
He eventually got a job in May last year as a high school science teacher at Triamudom Suksa Nomklao Uttaradit School, a state school in the northern province of Uttaradit. He earns more than 20,000 baht per month, but less than the 30,000 baht salary offered to white teachers.
“I tell myself I deserve the 30,000 baht salary after passing the Toeic (Test of English for International Communication) test with quite high scores, but considering the low cost of living here, I believe it’s nearly equivalent to earning 30,000 baht in Bangkok,” the 25-year-old said.
Like many Filipinos working abroad, Mr Villalino allocates 5,000-10,000 baht of his monthly salary to send home to his family.
“But my other friends give more than 10,000 baht,” he said. “Sometimes when our families have problems, we send more than half of what we receive.”
According to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, more than 5,000 Filipinos travelled to Thailand to work each year between 2010 and 2014, with a total of 6,653 last year.
Filipinos make up about one-third of all foreign teachers in Thailand, with statistics from the Teachers’ Council of Thailand showing more than 5,000 Filipinos applied for temporary teaching licences in the 18 months to July this year, followed by 3,000 Americans and 2,400 British nationals.
Schools often have a three-tiered pay scale, with Filipinos at the lower end and Westerners at the top. Non-native white English speakers are generally paid about the same as native speakers.
White native English speaking teachers earn an average of 35,000 baht teaching at a Thai school, while the rate for Thais is about 30,000 baht and Filipinos 20,000-25,000 baht.
“It’s considered discrimination but employers see it as if they are buying a product from Central as opposed to Tesco Lotus. There are no Filipinos on the same salary as farang,” said Suthee Buranacharu deputy managing director of Amsam Academic, a foreign teacher recruitment agency.
“Filipinos are also willing to live in remote areas, because they are patient, not so picky, and also nice and friendly.”
The movement toward English programmes in Thai schools has been growing since 1995, when the Education Ministry ruled that schools could incorporate subjects taught in English into their curriculums.
Then, when demand for foreign teachers was still low, newly established schools used native English speakers with a background in education.
By 1998, the number of English programmes had mushroomed and schools were competing to hire native speakers. The law at the time required foreign teachers to have a degree in
Salary was dictated by our skin colour and not ability to deliver, or the credentials we worked so hard for
LYNDSAY CABILDO FILIPINA TEACHER
education, but there was a lack of qualified candidates, so schools began poaching teachers from one another, offering higher salaries to attract the best staff.
Now employment requirements have been eased to allow any foreigner with a bachelor’s degree to apply for a two-year teaching permit, finding teachers is much easier. But that doesn’t mean recruitment problems have been solved.
Thailand has more than 230 public and private schools with English programmes, and more than 80 international schools.
International schools can usually afford to employ a full faculty of native English speakers. At less expensive bilingual schools, such as Interkids Bilingual School — where tuition fees are half the price of an international school at 40,000 baht per semester — recruiting a large number of native speakers is not economically feasible.
Parents, however, want their children to be taught by white people.
“Parents like farang teachers, but we can’t afford for all our staff to be farang,” said IBS director Amporn Wisetjung. “If we had native speakers teaching all subjects, then we would have to bring in a different grade of farang.”
In 1997, two years after the school was established, IBS started hiring non-native speakers to teach in their degree subjects. They initially hired Vietnamese, Myanmar, Filipinos and Indians, but are now left with only Filipinos.
IBS now has 50 non-native and 10 native English speaking teachers at its three schools in Bangkok, which serve 1,000 students from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12.
“When asked to choose between Indians and Filipinos, parents prefer Filipinos,” Ms Amporn said. “Their culture is similar to Thais, and they are hard-working. Farang teachers sometimes think their only job is to teach, and not to mind the children.”
At Kornpitacksuksa School, a private school with 6,300 students and 600 on its English programme, there is a strict policy of not employing Asian teachers.
“If Thai children get used to an Indian or Filipino accent, it will be too late to fix at a later stage,” said Busakorn Kornpitack, the school’s manager.
The school employs 40 foreign teachers, including a French national who was educated in the UK.
“Even if they pass language tests, we don’t accept them if their accent isn’t good and clear,” she said. “Even with teachers from the UK we need to be careful. Teachers from Scotland, for instance, have a strong accent.”
Srithammarat Suksa School, a private Christian school in Nakhon Si Thammarat, also has a policy of recruiting only native speakers, with a salary starting at 30,000 baht per month. The majority of its 50 foreign teachers work on the school’s English programme, which has about 1,000 students.
“We made an agreement with parents that we won’t use Filipino teachers. Filipinos aren’t bad teachers, but we need to keep our word,” said Siripat Tongliemnak, head of the school’s English programme.
She added that the school does not employ African-Americans: “Not because we are racist but we are concerned that the children might be scared of them.”
In the Philippines, English is taught widely from an early age. While Tagalog is the national language, all textbooks from kindergarten upwards are written in English, except for subjects such as history and Filipino.
There are very few foreign teachers in the Philippines, and teachers speak English most of the time — from giving pupils simple instructions in the corridor to formal lessons.
In top private schools, “English only” policies mean students are not allowed to speak Tagalog within school grounds.
“In the Philippines, there is a large population of English speakers who grew up speaking only English, which makes it their native language,” Ms Cabildo said. “The general stereotype is that native speakers are only white people, but that’s no longer the case in this modern day and age.”
Schools and universities often use employment agencies to find both part-time and fulltime teachers.
Agencies post job ads online, citing the name of the school they’re working for. The agencies then interview applicants, arrange the relevant documentation and bring candidates to the school where he or she is stationed. The agencies, not the schools, are the ones who pay the teachers’ salaries.
While agencies are a convenient choice for foreigners who are new to the country, schools such as Srithammarat Suksa refuse to use them because of complaints they deduct a high percentage of teachers’ salaries.
Kornpitacksuksa School recruits half of its teachers through agencies, but Ms Busakorn admits it can be problematic.
“Sometimes we pay the agencies at the start of the month, but they pay the teachers on the 15th or 20th,” she said.
Mrs Cabildo was employed at a college in Phatthalung through an agency that sends teachers to remote provinces.
After taking the job, she found out the college was paying 25,000 baht a month to the agency for Filipino teachers, who were only paid 15,000 baht in turn.
Native English speakers received 30,000 baht, while the school was paying the agency 35,000 baht for their services.
THE QUEEN’S ENGLISH
Amsam Academic’s Mr Suthee believes the disparity in pay for teachers comes down to the Thai obsession with accents.
He said he spent a decade backing the cause of English teachers from non-native backgrounds, but toned down his efforts after failing to convince the public and government officials.
Since there is still a large demand for native speakers, his company only recruits teachers from the UK and the US.
“Thais believe you have to learn English with a native speaker in order to have a good accent, but we do not prioritise the importance of communicating effectively regardless of accent,” he said.
“Thais are very happy if an English teacher is from the UK, because they consider the British accent classic and original. It’s a valuable thing.”
Mr Suthee believes Filipinos have a right to be angry when their job applications are turned down because of their nationality.
“I have a place in my heart for Filipinos,” he said. “Their passion for teaching is even stronger than native speakers.”
Thais believe you have to learn English with a native speaker in order to have a good accent
SUTHEE BURANACHARU AMSAM ACADEMIC