How is working defined in Thailand?
The definition in the alien employment act of 2008 is, “engaging in work by exerting energy or using knowledge, whether or not in consideration of wages or other benefits.” It’s a very broad definition. In practice, it’s not quite so clear-cut. It’s true to say that the rules in recent times have not been enforced in the draconian tradition of yesteryear. There is, for instance, a non-immigrant volunteer visa which requires the stamp of the host sponsoring organization. However, this visa cannot be the basis of a regular work permit and is not available in all provinces.
So what are the exceptions?
Embassy and other diplomatic staff don’t need Thai work permits. Another exception covers foreigners here “for the benefit of education, culture, sports and the arts.” However, this doesn’t cover “teaching” on a regular basis, but is meant to cover competing sportsmen and women etc. There is also an exclusion for foreigners doing “urgent and essential work for less than 15 days”, but this requires a detailed company letter and the de facto approval of the immigration bureau and the Department of Employment. Holders of the 4-year Smart visa, designed for well-paid computer professionals, investors and entrepreneurs approved by the Board of Investment, do not need a separate work permit.
What if a company or a school offers me a job?
You need to enter Thailand with a non-immigrant visa. Ideally it should be a non-immigrant “B” type, but an “O” based on marriage is also acceptable. Because of the difficulties of travel during the pandemic, an “O” based on retirement may also – currently anyway – be the basis of an application for a work permit. You need to check locally. The company, which will have registered capital, will arrange the work permit and provide the required documentation with input from yourself such as academic qualifications. The work permit will specify precisely what your work role is. Schools are not companies in the same sense but are registered with the Department of Education and are mainline buyers of foreigner language skills.
What if I want to start my own company?
Initially (assuming you have an acceptable non-immigrant visa) you have to set up the company with a minimum of two million baht capital for each work permit. There must be a minimum of three Thai shareholders who jointly own at least 51% of the shares. You need to make sure that your company does not involve activities which are banned to foreigners – for example you cannot be a practicing lawyer – and that your role is specifically defined. Four Thai employees must be working for every foreigner permit. The Department of Labour and the Immigration Bureau both have a role in work permit matters and both can inspect premises or take legal action. Typically, both permit and visa are annually renewable.
Can you give examples of grey areas?
An obvious one concerns digital nomads. They are clearly making money here, but perhaps their customers are all overseas. Or online teachers of English whose customers are all in China. Meanwhile, the Thai immigration authorities are essentially concerned with catching foreigners who are either taking jobs from Thais or making a profit here which should be taxable. A lawyer experienced in employment affairs can discuss your individual case.
What are the most common cases prosecuted?
Over the years, the majority of cases have been foreigners working illegally in schools or for companies which promised a work permit and never delivered on it. Most institutions are lawful, but some take the risk. Another category is the foreigner “helping” to run a bar or restaurant irrespectively of whether he’s paid or not. The minimum penalty is a fine and the maximum comprises deportation and blacklisting. Most Asian countries have similar rules to Thailand’s, although Malaysia allows longstay retirees some latitude for part-time employment whilst Cambodia has a number of visas to suit those looking for work as well as those actually in employment.