Digital nomads stuck in grey area

Digital nomads stuck in grey area

The coronavirus pandemic has boosted the popularity of remote work, and if Thailand is interested in attracting the highest-paid digital workers to help boost the economy, it must legalise the practice to welcome these professionals.

People in some parts of the world are leaving their offices to work from their laptops wherever an internet connection is available, including homes, cafes, and beaches.

This means that many of them will or have become digital nomads, a term for people who live a nomadic lifestyle while working at a remote location. Some have long-term contracts with their companies, while others freelance. These workers, many from developed countries, are migrating to tourist destinations in Asia, Europe and the Caribbean for a change of scenery and a sense of adventure.

For Thailand, the government and private sector have invested in infrastructure such as a stable high-speed internet, co-working spaces and digital trade promotion systems to attract digital nomads to stay and work in big cities such as Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Phuket.

Research released in 2019 by the Faculty of Economics at the Chiang Mai University Chiang Mai Entrepreneurship Association (CMEA), shows digital nomads have contributed to the local economy in Chiang Mai.

Since 2017, Chiang Mai has become a preferred destination for digital nomads thanks to its digital and business infrastructure, affordable accommodation and working space, and budding digital nomad communities.

The report shows each spent 35,000 baht on monthly expenses, 200,000 baht annually on tourism activities, 15,000 baht a month on accommodation and 5,000-10,000 baht a month for food.

Yet Thai laws on visa and work permits are reported to be a deterrent that can drive digital nomads away. The report says a digital nomad needs to spend 60,000 baht to pay an agent to get a visa.

The lack of regulations for digital nomads means they sit in a grey area. Digital nomads with companies that do not have a presence in Thailand must obtain short-term visas to reside in the country.

Short term visas, such as tourist visas, do not often permit holders to work or obtain an income while living in Thailand, so digital nomads do not pay taxes and nor do they have social protections.

A lack of employment compliance is one reason Bangkok ranked low in a recent survey report by WorkMotion, a human resources platform for hiring remote employees. In its report early this month, the capital city was ranked 68th out of 80 global cities, while the top spots were given to Melbourne, Montreal, Sydney and Wellington.

According to Carsten Lebtig, co-founder of WorkMotion, only 11 cities in certain countries offered a digital nomad visa. Most cities surveyed in its study lagged in this area, he said.

"Bangkok is currently being held back by its employment compliance rules, which makes it hard for companies to easily employ remote workers based elsewhere," he said.

In September, the government revealed a plan to lure remote workers and digital nomads to work from Thailand. Although this seems like progress for digital nomads, it doesn't boost the confidence of professionals looking to work from Thailand's beaches.

Government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said these professionals would need to "earn enough income" to be considered financially secure but did not specify how much money one should earn per year and whether a visiting digital nomad would need to have insurance.

To boost confidence in its plan, the government needs to disclose how much it expects digital nomads to earn while working in Thailand. However, the kingdom must not set its target too high if it wishes to compete with countries that already have systems in place to properly serve digital nomads.

Barbados introduced a special visa for remote workers in July last year. The Barbados Welcome Stamp allows remote workers to work in the island nation for up to a year. Those interested in working there would need to make at least US$50,000 (1.6 million baht) per year or prove that they have the means to support themselves during their stay.

One country taking a leading role in enticing remote workers is France, where its one-year freelancer visa allows people to work in the European country without needing an employer to sponsor their stay.

Meanwhile, one would only need to make 1,540 euros (57,000 baht) per month, or about 18,000 euros per year, to qualify, according to visa info websites. While Thailand's law is still in the works, the cabinet should expedite its process and ensure that new regulations are implemented next year.

If the kingdom wants to be open to digital nomads, it must have a proper system to accommodate them.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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