Invasion of the job snatchers
The tourism boom in Phuket over the past decade has seen a dramatic increase in Russian and Chinese visitors and also growing resentment from local tour guides who say illegal foreign workers are stealing their jobs.
- Published: 26/05/2013 at 12:00 AM
- Newspaper section: topstories
RISING TIDE: A massive surge in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Phuket in recent years has led to a corresponding demand for tour guides able to speak their language.
''It's been about 10 years since we have faced the problem of foreigners stealing our jobs,'' Suphachai Wattanaparintorn, vice-president of the Phuket Professional Guide Association, angrily said. ''The Koreans came first, now it is the Russians and Chinese.''
The number of foreign tourists visiting Phuket has more than quadrupled since 2005, from 2.5 million to 11 million last year, according to Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) statistics.
According to the Provincial Office of Commercial Affairs, the No.1 foreign arrivals direct into Phuket airport in the first quarter of last year were Russians (130,000) followed by Chinese (121,000), Swedish (62,000), Australians (57,000) and South Koreans (47,000).
While local tour guides and operators are crying foul over their jobs being stolen, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) which is cracking down on the illegal foreign workers says many of the financial wounds are self-inflicted because of foreigners' fears of being cheated.
''It is true that the problem affects local business operators, however they have to ask themselves if they are partly the cause of the problem,'' said Pol Col Yanapol Yungyuen, deputy director-general of the DSI.
''If they try to overcharge tourists or cheat them to get more money, the tourists turn to other services they think are better and more trustworthy.''
On April 25 the issue was highlighted when Pol Col Yanapol arrived from Bangkok to lead a series of raids on foreign guides and illegal tour guide companies in Phuket's Thalang district. Without giving numbers, he said the majority of those arrested were Russian and Chinese.
The DSI was acting on complaints from Phuket businesses and locals about ''foreigners working without a work permit or working in occupations reserved for Thais''.
SACRED SPOT: Phuket’s Wat Chalong is one of the most frequently visited temples on the island.
The majority of those arrested in the raid were working as taxi drivers or tour guides. In the past two months raids by local police authorised by the DSI have netted 17 foreign nationals from Russia, Kyrgyzstan and the UK.
Yaowapa Piboonpol, chief of the Phuket Provincial Employment Office, has joined the raids on foreign-owned businesses in Phuket's Thalang, Muang and Kathu districts.
''We check the workplace address and the type of work cited in their work permits,'' she said. ''The businesses we are especially concerned about are tour van operations, tour counter services, guide services and condo time-share sales.''
Phuket immigration officer Capt Angkarn Yasanop, estimated that a third to a half of foreign tour guides working in Thailand are doing so illegally. Those working in Thailand with a proper visa are usually classified as translators, according to an immigration source.
Ann, 27, from Surat Thani has worked for three years for one of the leading Russian tour companies and is fully aware of the tricks employed by foreigners working illegally to avoid detection by police and immigration officers.
She has no affection for her Russian workmates who she claims take a superior attitude to Thais, treating them like second-class staff.
However, she is more than happy to take the 38,000 baht per month salary _ which includes commissions _ to sit in the office or accompany a tour as a ''sitting guide'' to give the appearance a local is looking after the tourists.
''I feel like we were hired just to stop the Russian guides from being caught by officials,'' she said. ''Although they do not treat me well, the job is well paid. It is the only reason I still work with them.''
The foreign tour guide lies low when they visit a popular tourist attraction. ''The Russian guide will not get out of the tour bus because an officer in the area might notice them,'' Ann said. ''The Thai guide will take care of the guests instead.''
''When we take the guests out of Phuket to the islands or to the tourist spots which are less popular, the Russian guides will openly do their job because they are out of sight of the officers. We just sit and wait until the tour is finished.''BUSINESS IS BUSINESSJulia, a 26-year-old tour guide from Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia, says she gets around the work permit problem by having her work classified as translator.
She has worked for a Russian tour guide company in Phuket for two years. Prior to coming to Thailand she was a tour guide in her hometown.
''The tour company manager agreed to hire me as a translator,'' Julia said. ''That's what it says on my work permit, which is totally different from what I actually do. Most of my Russian friends who work as tour guides have a work permit, but the type of work cited in their work permit does not match what they are working as.''
Other Russian friends working illegally had simply entered on a tourist visa and overstayed, hoping they would never be caught.
''The Russian guide who does not have a work permit will work on trips to the islands or upcountry where officials rarely visit,'' Julia said.
Ann said they are usually notified by SMS before immigration officers and police launch a raid.
''Of course, the manager knows about the raids because some official has told them,'' she said.
''We also know some tour companies have strong backup from authorities in Bangkok, this is why no one can touch them.''
Another problem, she says is that Russian is a difficult language to learn.
''In order to be able to speak fluently, we need time and a lot of money to pay for lessons. The company is aware of this, so they hire native Russian speakers.
''We do not have time to learn and the company does not really offer us a course. We can say only some simple phrases such as 'go straight', 'turn left' and 'turn right'. We cannot describe or explain in detail about the places we visit.''
Alexandra, 28, from St Petersburg in Russia, said she and her boyfriend felt more comfortable communicating with native Russian speakers.
BAD TRIP: A man and woman from China suspected of working as illegal tour guides are apprehended in Phuket. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MANAGER ONLINE
''My boyfriend and I have been to Phuket twice. On our first visit, we were a little scared since we heard some negative news about crime so we decided to buy a tour package. That way we could be sure we would not get lost and it's safer than travelling alone.''
Alexandra said the Russian tour company they chose offered a good service at a reasonable price with a friendly Russian tour guide. ''We felt more secure speaking with a guide from our country. She could understand us completely.''
Liwei, a 32-year-old Chinese tourist from Xi'an also preferred being shown around Phuket by one of his countrymen, saying it was ''more fun'' and he could visit the places he wanted to go to rather than being shown around by a local guide.
''My friends recommended this tour company because the service is good,'' said Liwei, who is on his first visit to Thailand. ''The tour guide, who is Chinese, knows a lot about the places. It made the trips more enjoyable since I did not have a problem understanding what she said. I learned more about places and I really enjoyed the trips.''PROBLEM RUNS DEEPThe director of the TAT's Phuket office, Chanchai Duangjit, said Thais had to take responsibility for their complicity in the dubious operations.
''The problem of foreigners stealing jobs from Thais, using Thai nominees to open businesses is not a problem that can be solved by just one department,'' he said. ''It needs government coordination and local people have to act to protect themselves.
''If someone inside the country opens the door and welcomes foreigners into the country to do illegal things, no matter how hard government officers try to solve the problem, it will never fade away.''
He said charges should be laid against local nominees involved in the illegal tour guide business as well as the foreigners.
''Phuket is growing and has become an ideal place for business and development,'' he said. ''That is why the foreign business operators try to find loopholes to conduct illegal business on the island.''
Mr Chanchai believes that the crackdown is starting to work and many illegal foreign businesses are being driven out of Phuket. However, he warned the illegal operators would probably return if the raids stopped.
With the number of foreign tourists to Phuket projected to top 12 million this year, he said its image had not been tarnished by the tour guide problem.
''It does not affect the image of tourism, but money that should go to local people is being taken away by illegal foreign investors or flowing back to countries abroad,'' he said.
Bhuritt Maswongssa, vice-president of the Phuket Tourism Association, agreed that Thais were as much to blame as foreigners for the illegal businesses flourishing.
''The arrest of illegal foreign business owners is dealing with the symptoms, not the root cause. Officers should start with how they get into the country, who helps them start their illegal businesses and who supports them.''
He also said that if the crackdowns weren't fair and transparent, one group arrested and deported would simply be replaced by another.
The DSI's Col Yanapol said he is considering launching a Facebook page for people to report foreigners working illegally by uploading photos directly to the page.
Mr Chanchai, while agreeing it was a good idea, was more cautious.
''You have to make sure the photo or information that was posted on a Facebook page is correct because not every foreign business in Thailand is illegal.''
SAFETY IN NUMBERS: Above and top, tourists relax on Patong beach. Many visitors to Phuket say they are more comfortable going on day trips with guides from their home countries.
About the author
- Writer: O Nara