Friday, January 23, 2015

Mission of the Year: Operation Tax Refund

Shortly after arriving in Thailand in July 2013, we began hearing that the practice of the Thai government is to withhold income tax from international teachers' paychecks, even though they, as expats, should be exempt from being taxed, at least for the first two years they're here. We heard that other international schools in Bangkok did not take taxes out of their teachers' paychecks, but we were subject to the income tax because our particular district did not follow the national law governing the taxation of expats' incomes. Later, we began hearing rumors that we could get the tax money returned to us if we left after two years. But it was all very hush-hush, passed on through soft whispers, with nothing in writing to prove otherwise. It all sounded very confusing and sketchy. I did some research of my own, but failed to find anything conclusive; there were simply too many differing accounts of the "facts" surrounding income taxes for expats.
The ferry boat to and from the hotel.
A few months after our arrival, in the fall of 2013, it became known which faculty members were leaving after two years of teaching here, same as it was this past fall after the contracts were due. I began approaching a few people I trusted to discuss the matter of the income tax, and to find out what's what. I was told that there was "a man" who worked with teachers to get their taxes refunded. I was given just a name, no contact information or website, and told to look him up on social media. Everyone who knew of him learned about him through word of mouth. There were no company websites or public records of any sort with a paper trail indicating that he did this sort of work, or even that he was legitimate. Again, it was all very mysterious and secretive.

I didn't think too much of this whole thing again until after we made our decision to return home this summer. Then I began hearing that other teachers in our cohort who are also leaving this year had begun to contact this man to get their taxes refunded. Because it's not a small amount of money (some people will probably get refunds of between $20,000 to $30,000; for us, it's a bit less because I officially worked for only one year), my curiosity was piqued and I decided to look a little more into it. I spoke to people who had begun the process and to people who left last year about their experiences with this mysterious tax man so far. My husband contacted yet other teachers for contact information because simply looking him up on social media seemed so strange and unofficial. The teachers we contacted actually had his contact information and company website address, miracles of miracles!
I contacted Tax Man through his website, and he emailed me a couple of days later with an overwhelming amount of information about what he does, how he does it, and testimonials from those he had worked with in the past. He immediately wanted to set up a meeting -- at a hotel, no less -- for that weekend, and included in his email his fees, which are pretty substantial. He also required multiple copies of every page of our passports, employment contracts, and work permits. So we were basically to hand over all our confidential, personal information, along with a huge sum of cash, to a perfect stranger. At a hotel. In downtown Bangkok. After which he could forever disappear into thin air, if he wished.

It takes a lot of trust, or stupidity, however you want to look at it. If this were in America, we would've researched this from every angle, called everyone we know under the sun, and then probably not go through with it because it just seems too weird and underhanded. But this is Thailand, and this is how things are done here. Also, it was comforting to know that this guy has a history of working with teachers at our school, and has a history of successfully getting the Thai government to refund tax money to international teachers throughout Thailand. It also helped that other teachers in our cohort had already met with him, and could tell us their impressions and experiences. Meanwhile, the teachers who left last year with whom I was in touch were keeping me updated on their situations, and they were already beginning to receive portions of their refunds, which was a good sign.
The hotel all lit up.
So we set up a meeting with him. It was all very clandestine -- we were given instructions on when, where, and what to bring. The appointment was for a Saturday afternoon a few weeks later, at one of the most well-known hotels in the world, which is where he meets all his clients. We took a taxi and a train to get to the pier on the Chao Phraya River in downtown Bangkok, with binder clips of documents and a wad of cash in an envelop hidden away. Then we took the hotel's ferry boat to the hotel. With so many modes of transportation, and with everything being so covert, we felt as if we were on a mission, trying to outrun someone in a chase.

We felt completely under-dressed and out of place at the hotel. Everyone there was dressed to the nines -- it's a place where the rich and famous stay and hang out. Rooms there range from $500 to $5000 a night.

At the appointed time, he came through the doors, looking around. I recognized him from a picture online, so I approached him and introduced myself. I wondered for a moment whether I should give him a fake name. But in contrast with all the furtiveness, the first thing he did was give us two cute, green, stuffed bears -- they're from an organization that plants a tree in Thailand for every bear purchased, and he buys them for his clients every year. It was adorable.

He's a British man in his late 50s, an international tax consultant who has been living in Bangkok for 12 years, and has been working with teachers here for eight years. He's quite an interesting man with an interesting story -- he's never been married, but told us of a near-marriage to a Finnish woman when he was in his 20s. He even learned Finnish to move to Finland to be with her, but when he returned a year later, she had moved on and married someone else. She recently contacted him again on social media -- she's been divorced for many years and has a grown son -- and he's thinking about going to visit her again. He quite regretted having lost her the first time, and advised us that, in life, one just needs to choose a direction and move forward with that decision, which was how it was when he decided to move to Bangkok. He was scared and uncertain, but nevertheless sold everything he owned and left his life behind, resolving to make it work in Bangkok, no matter what happened. And here he was, 12 years later, with a thriving tax consulting business, and being sought out by international teachers to help them. I found him to be quite charming and endearing, and straightforward in his interactions with us.
The beautiful lobby.
Our meeting lasted over two hours. He responded quite honestly to all our questions; he had a ton of references and testimonials, and quite a few stories. He told us of schools that tax teachers' incomes, but pocket the money themselves instead of turning it over to the government (which is what we suspect our school does). He told us of government officials in the revenue department getting bribes from schools, and schools getting bribes as well. He told us of others who claim to do what he does, but who simply take teachers' money and disappear. We heard stories of many schools that promise to help teachers get their taxes returned, but don't follow through. We heard about schools and government officials colluding with each other. And he told us of being brought to our school years ago by someone in HR and presented to the faculty as someone who could help them get their taxes back, only to be characterized later by the same person (who appears to be the sweetest person in the world and whom we know quite well!) as an incompetent, dishonest person, simply because this HR staff member had a friend or relative who wanted to make some money off the teachers, so she began directing the teachers to go to her friend/relative instead! Of course, this other person had no idea what he was doing, so he couldn't help the teachers. "Our" tax guy actually advised us not to breathe a word to the school about what we were doing, in case the school tried to sabotage our efforts. He told us of eight years of working through all the obstacles the Thai government has placed before him in an effort to stop him, and all the corruption in the Thai government. Sadly, doing this kind of work has changed him -- he's been hardened, he's become less trusting and more suspicious, and he has come to distrust and dislike most Thai people.

None of this was surprising, though it was extremely disappointing. We had known that there was a lot of corruption in Thailand, but had no idea that it was so pervasive (a few of my students had warned me in the past that Thailand is "very, very corrupt."). To hear that we can't even trust those we interact with on a daily basis was jarring and saddening. To hear that people who are supposed to be helping us would steer us in the wrong direction for personal gain was very disheartening. Since starting my job, I had begun to suspect that anyone with remotely any money or connection in Thailand was corrupt, and this experience only confirmed my suspicions. Even for a cynic like me, this is all a little too much to handle and too depressing to contemplate.
Thank goodness Tax Man also has a great sense of humor, and had a few funny stories to relay. As we furtively signed paperwork and handed over the envelop of money under the table, he wondered what those around us thought we were doing. He joked that people must think he was a stuffed bear salesman as he always gives his clients bears, after which they give him money. He told of meeting with a beautiful, young international teacher, and watching a man watch them intently as she handed over a wad of cash. The man almost approached them, and Tax Man felt certain that the man thought Tax Man was this woman's pimp. He also had been approached in the past and asked whether he was a client's boyfriend. Because he is there practically every day, he told us he recognized a certain woman who was always there, meeting different wealthy men -- a prostitute with sky-high rates. We joked about conducting a poll of those around us to get their perceptions of what was happening.

The atmosphere at the hotel was actually quite pleasant. The lobby was beautiful with lots of light. Tax Man ordered drinks and snacks for all of us. And when dusk descended upon us, a string quartet set up in the lobby to play beautiful classical music. It was actually all pretty magical, were it not for the nature of our business there. As usual, never a dull moment, always an adventure.

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