We drove the 30 kilometres from Lop Buri to a little restaurant we know and sat quietly whilst a Chang beer and some very spicy pork with Thai basil was delivered to our table. Nothing needed to be said as we have been here before and each time we said it would be our last time.
I was not going to write about it, it is just more of the same and I didn't want to test the patience of my dear reader, but as we drove out for dinner last night Ploy made a comment which just brought it all to surface again.
What brought all of this about; a visit to Lop Buri immigration to renew my non-B visa.
Let me briefly explain. There are two visas that allow one to work in Thailand, (when accompanied by a work permit). One is the non-O which you can qualify for by being married to a Thai, and the second is the non-B which is explicitly for working here and has to be 'sponsored' by a Thai company. When I first came to Thailand I got a non-O visa, for 12 months, but after that period, with our company then established, I returned to the UK to apply for a non-B visa, (which is only given for 3 months). Why did I do that? Well, as mentioned, the non-O visa is tied to our marriage and should anything happen to Ploy and me, from divorce to her being hit by a buffalo, I cannot remain in the country. I cannot change to a retirement visa because that prohibits work so, at a time I would least probably want to do it, I would have to leave and apply for a non-B visa but have to do all the company related paperwork that requires by myself. So Ploy and I decided that having the non-B is the more secure option, for both of us. There are also little things like not having to keep 400,000 baht in the bank, which essentially cannot be used for any other purpose.
So non-B it is. To renew the visa there are two options, leave the country and go to a Thai embassy somewhere and apply for another 3 month visa - no embassy will give longer, (unless you believe Internet myth). The other option is to apply for an 'extension' in Thailand which is then for 12 months but requires you to still visit them every 3 months so they can keep tabs on you; (also a requirement of all other visas - soon they will electronically tag us). So we enquired at our local immigration office in Lop Buri about extending the non-B visa. After a long discussion about why we didn't have a non-O visa as it was much simpler they finally conceded that a non-B extension was possible but would take 4 weeks and a lot of paperwork, (read, effort for them), and they would have to visit us to check our business, (read, pay the bribe out of sight).
So we didn't bother. Instead I have been visiting Singapore every three months, something I had to do anyway to visit occasional customers but also suppliers and our sub-contractor. The Thai embassy website has a list of the documents required, I present them at 9.15a.m., which depending on the queue takes about 15 minutes, the following day I collect my visa; time to do, about 5 minutes. Cost, 2400 baht approximately. Every time it is the same, the document list is easy to do, the staff speak English (they are Singaporean), even the gatekeeper is nice and recognises me.
But now I don't have to visit Singapore so much and it is getting expensive. To renew the visa probably costs about 60,000 baht per trip with flights and hotels and sundries. 4 visits/year and that is a reasonable lump of money. So, with all other bureaucracy dealt with, we decided we would attempt the visa renewal here. Ploy visited the Immigration office and was given a list of required papers, all in minutely scripted Thai to which she had adorned various scribbled notes - extra items thought up on a whim. The officer also asked why we didn't get a non-O visa. We ploughed on. Well actually Ploy ploughed on, visiting two or more times to ask questions. Photos were taken of our premises with all staff duly present. Ploy disappeared into town for more papers, everything had to be duplicated.
I think I am there, she said one day, and so I showered and dressed suitably poorly, (under instruction from Ploy - she removed her watch and jewellery too), and we made the trip to Lop Buri and their nice brand spanking new office and un-made up car park. We barely sat down before Ploy was beckoned over to a desk, already occupied by another applicant, and the papers presented. He pushed aside the papers he was working on and took a cursory look at ours. He reached for a drawer and presented us with more papers to fill in. They were all in Thai, save for one. They were detailed, requiring profit and loss figures from the company, staff information, etc. etc. All information included in the forest of papers we had already presented. It took an hour to fill in the new documents - a waste of the 700 baht of decent whisky Ploy has already presented him with.
He then asked for our marriage certificate. Luckily we had it but it was in English as that is where we had got married. We had already used the two authenticated translations we had once done. He copied the certificate, (actually beckoned to a girl nearby to do it who had to stop serving another customer to do so - Thai men don't do copies), perused it uncomprehendingly and then discarded it. He resorted the papers and then produced another list of required documents, different to our one. He asked the whereabouts of another piece of paper which Ploy did not have, understandably as it was not on our list. Ploy wrote it down. He collated the documents again, each pile more than one inch thick and beckoned over the same girl to stick his chosen company photographs onto sheets of plain paper - Thai men don't do glue sticks.
'Is that it', I whispered to Ploy. 'Not yet', she replied.
He then told us to see another woman at another desk, a woman I had met before who, despite being a middle ranking officer, lorded it over the office; (those senior to her hide in a backroom, only to appear as the office closes). Her desk was the busiest, mostly because she refused to finish one application before accepting another one. Ploy pushed to the front and deposited the wad of papers in front of her. Surprisingly she smiled and gestured Ploy to sit down which as the seat was occupied meant that poor person was relegated to the back. They obediently complied, they knew their place. Ploy's previous oiling of the cogs had obviously worked. But it was not long before our documents were superceded by another's and another hour passed by before she started to look at the them properly. She spoke to Ploy at length and Ploy wrote many things down to add to her list. My Thai is poor and there was lots going on around but I got enough of the gist of the conversation to be annoyed. Ploy's comment in the car as we went to dinner confirmed it.
Ploy had spent the day getting the newly required papers and as reward we were going out to eat. I asked if she had anything else to do to which she answered, off guard, that she still needed to put an advert up in the local job centre for my position. She regretted saying it immediately. I had already suspected it from the drips of conversation I had understood in the office; this woman wanted to know why I was employed and not a Thai. And she wanted Ploy to prove a Thai could not do the job by advertising the same. So, 35 years of working in my field, senior membership of the foremost electronics society in the world...oh you get the gist. This woman has decided my job can be done by someone else, someone with darker skin and less pronounced nose.
'Just let me do my job', Ploy slightly angrily said to me in the car. 'Forget it'.
I couldn't. It is why I am awake at 3.a.m. as, woken by a heavy rain shower, thoughts of what to do to this woman came flooding through my head. It didn't finish there of course. There is the visit. And the bribe. Ploy negotiated her down. Luckily the nature of our orders is we can go a month with no order and then get two big ones. Last month we had just one small order and the month before nothing. Ploy explained the flooding and the red shirt riots had disrupted our business badly. Everyone understands that; Lop Buri was very badly affected by the former. The initial payment request was halved, to 6000 baht. Well you have to admire the straightforwardness of it, she even wrote the amount down for us. We had already paid 1900 baht for the visa for which we received an invoice but no change from 2000 baht. I noticed that money went straight into a wallet. Now we had to pay more to facilitate the application and the reason why they persist with the 'non-O is better than non-B' application becomes clear. The non-O is processed in Lop Buri, the non-B is processed in Bangkok. It leaves them less room for extortion. Ploy also told me it is hard to say you don't have money when you have to have hundreds of thousands of baht in bank just to renew the visa in the first place. For us, somewhere in that forest of papers are our accounts but they can't read them, so if Ploy says we don't have orders they have to believe her. Without her nous we would be paying 15000 baht, the first figure mentioned.
So this corrupt and disgusting woman will visit us next week and we have to be nice to her and hand over 6000 baht, (Ploy says we will probably have to give 10,000), so she does the job she is paid for and forwards our application to Bangkok. She will pretend to understand what I do whilst at the same time be thinking any Thai could my job better. And she will tell us it is much easier to have a non-O visa.
By the time we left Lop Buri immigration we had been there five hours. Because someone else beside the dragon woman decided to go through our papers and she decided we weren't paying our staff enough so we have had to increase the notified salary which means we have to pay more social insurance and Ploy had to get another piece of paper to confirm this. They can say anything and we have to comply. The rules are made by them, we can't go to another immigration office, we can't report them, we are puppets to their every whim.
You may wonder what role the Labour Office (work permit) have in this. Well it is a historical thing, and as in most governments, departments openly fight one another for funding. So immigration do the work of the labour office and although you might think having a work permit, (where I have to prove my job cannot be done by a Thai and that we pay our staff enough and pay me enough and they visit us to check the company is real etc. etc.) would mean some of Immigration's work had been done for them; well think again. Immigration think they can do the Labour office work and do so to further justify their budgetary claims. Presumably that is why they have a new office soon after the Labour office also got one.
After the visit, assuming she thinks she has been paid her dues, I then have to wait 2 months for my visa extension, one month beyond when my current visa expires. That is uncomfortable feeling in Thailand even though I have a stamp in my passport to this effect (with unintelligible English). I certainly wouldn't want to leave the country in these two months; luckily I don't think I have to.
But at the end of this I should have a 12 month visa and even with the bribe we will be quids in. So job done you might think.
Except we have to do this again in another 12 months. It is not even the paperwork or even the bribe, the thing that has hit me most is my feeling of worth in the eyes of this woman and presumably in the eyes of Thai government. How dare she denigrate me so. I know it is not the Thai people, our friends understand how hard we work whilst not fully understanding what we do. But they appreciate they couldn't do it. We, dragon lady, are the sort of people you should be encouraging to stay here, but we are the ones, because of our skills and knowledge, who have the most mobility.
One day we will move on, even if it is on a boat, free from all immigration laws and away from pathetic specimens of the human race, like you.
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