The road most travelled in Cambodia work wise for expats is the world of foreign language teaching mainly English, but also as a former colony French, and these days to a lesser extent Korean and no doubt, Chinese. But most plunge into the world of English language teaching in a plethora of institutions, some functional and some not so functional, attracting an equally diverse range of candidates some of who are qualified and may even be competent, but invariably a larger number of chancers, wannabees and has beens. Many of these probably should be somewhere else doing something else, and well away from students and their money.
English language teaching in Cambodia is a murky world and seems entirely unregulated. This is due to Cambodia itself, having to drag itself out of the mire of years of civil war and eager to develop, it’s young population keen to learn as much as possible as fast as possible, which in itself is only to be admired. Unfortunately, this predicament lends itself to abuse in a country where if laws do exist, they are sometimes poorly enforced and easy to ignore.
For the uninitiated, to be qualified as an English language teacher usually requires some sort of tertiary training, a class-based certificate; a CELTA or the more advanced DELTA, taught in accredited language schools the world over but not available in Cambodia. The alternatives are the university courses; Dip TESOL or various certificates, diplomas or degrees in linguistics, which are largely theory based courses. Over these are the actual teaching degrees you know, real teachers, but not those specialising in teaching English as a second language. Language schools often prefer the course-based programmes for their overwhelmingly practical emphasis, university graduates tend to flounder about initially.
Few institutions in the Kingdom of Wonder request these qualifications. Sadly, if you do happen to possess such things, their authenticity is unlikely to be verified and you’re even more unlikely to be reimbursed accordingly. Basically, you’re remunerated with all the flotsam and jetsam, qualified, just pretending or otherwise that accumulates in Southeast Asia. Having a white face, some sort of CV and speaking English is generally enough, even if you’re not a native speaker.
One of the better schools in Cambodia is the Australian Centre for Education (ACE). The minimum requirements for work at ACE are a CELTA, a CV, copies of certificates, an interview and reference checks, though no criminal check. ACE has two campuses in Phnom Penh and another in Siem Reap. They pay better than most others at US$19 per hour on the general English programme. Teaching hours are about 22 per week and can include Saturdays, and this being the world of language teaching means you’re only ever paid for the time in the classroom.
Realistically, you can take your teaching salary and halve it, because of all the time you spend outside the classroom marking and preparing for lessons. Another downside to teaching, and this is as true at ACE as elsewhere, is that your hours will likely be spread over an entire day, though better employers like ACE try to minimise this. So in theory, you could be in for a class first thing in the morning, again at lunchtime, and then back in the afternoon or evening plus all the travelling time without really having enough time off during the day to do much else. There is also the inevitable stand down period between terms which goes unpaid, meaning you just get some money together and then you stop earning. You’re also not paid for sick leave or public holidays of which Cambodia has many, and paid annual leave doesn’t exist. Pay days like everywhere else in Asia are monthly, so it can be a long time in between drinks.
One Aussie teacher I met had spent 10 years teaching in Cambodia, mostly at ACE and had also spent time teaching in Vietnam. “When I went back to live in Aussie” he told me on a return trip to Phnom Penh, “I had $10 in my pocket, one dollar for every year I spent here” lamenting a lack of opportunity to save much money working as a teacher.
Many teaching jobs in Cambodia pay much less than ACE, which also pays staff half-rates for attending meetings, unheard of at other schools. Monthly wages for some jobs are as little as US$1000 with ACE paying just over twice that and everyone else somewhere in between. Teaching is, however, generally better paid work in Cambodia than in neighbouring Thailand, where wages have wholly failed to keep pace with the cost of living over the years.
To be fair, some teachers qualified or otherwise, teach because they actually like it and want to genuinely contribute to the development of Cambodians. One English guy I know, has taught in a range of poorly paid jobs for about five years, and often over that time purchased out of his own pocket teaching aids for his students. But he also commented on one of his jobs at a university where his employers sacrificed standards for money, and where he was pressured to promote students regardless of their ability, as this was expected due to the fees they were paying.
Tertiary education is another quagmire. Some places calling themselves universities aren’t quite what you’d expect. Basically, anyone can go out and open a facility and call it a university and start hiring. If you apply you may well find yourself having to design an entire course before starting work and being paid.
Just because you’re working doesn’t mean that you’ll be paid on time or, in some cases, paid at all. One chain of language schools in Cambodia, Newton Thillay, was for years dubbed “Newton No Pay” because of their somewhat dubious reputation for failing to reimburse the staff.
Job hunting for work, any work, can be an eye opener. You’re unlikely to ever receive confirmation of an application. This is also true of foreign employers such as the Australian and British embassies. Cambodian CVs usually include information not found in documents in other countries. Marital status, age and the inevitable photo of the applicant are the norm. Discussing salary is another murky world, as you’re likely to be asked what your expectations are, and wind up in some sort of auction with the employer.
After applying for a job you may not hear back for weeks, only to suddenly be contacted and asked to come in. At this point you’re informed of the hours of work, salary, and start date. All this has occurred without any discussion on what your preferences might be, or taking into account the fact that you may already have another job or are fielding other offers.
Expat observations of the job scene in Cambodia can make interesting viewing. One recent arrival asked fellow expats via the Expat Advisory website for advice on job hunting in the Kingdom of Wonder, citing that employers were asking him what he wanted to be paid.
The advice came thick and fast; “Never answer that question directly,” someone offered. “Things kind of work in reverse here [in Cambodia]. Instead of trying to get the best person for the job, and giving them appropriate remuneration, the approach is to pay as less as possible and try to get the person to do way more than what they are paid for.”
“My advice” said another “would be to pass on any job where they ask you for salary requirements”. They had had a “great interview for a highly [sic] profile position that required a pretty narrow skill set,” and had been asked what their salary expectations were. “I asked around to find out what the going rate was. I aimed a little high, hoping to haggle down to what I thought was the right figure. It was only then that they told me they were intending to pay less than HALF of what I expected. If they had said this up front it would have save us all a lot of time, and me a lot of stress.”
Most interviews I’ve had in Cambodia consisted of a one-to-one with the manager, owner or academic director, though I now try and avoid teaching altogether. I’ve ever only had one formal interview with a panel. I’ve been offered jobs on the spot, and had others take weeks, and just when you’ve completely given up and forgotten you ever applied, there comes the phone call to meet the owner at their office or in a coffee shop and you’ve basically got the job. Others you never hear from again or the pay is so low that you there’s little point taking the job.
With so many talented and qualified Cambodians seeking work – only about 10 percent actually find employment in their chosen field – there has been debate in the media whether foreigners working in Cambodia aid or hinder Cambodian graduates, with opinions from nationals interviewed recently split about 50-50.
Bank accounts are another factor to consider. Numerous banks, both national and international, now operate in Cambodia including Vietnamese, Chinese and the ANZ Royal, a joint venture with local magnate, Kith Meng. Increasingly, employers now pay via automatic payments rather than cash. The first job I had in Cambodia, pay day consisted of lining up outside the accountant’s office, where your monthly salary was paid from a bundle of $100 bills stored in the bottom draw of the desk. You then had to go downtown to change the bills at Lucky’s supermarket to combat a perennial problem in Cambodia, the lack of small change. Another employer would pay by cheque, which you had to go and cash at their bank before carrying the cash out the front door in plain view of dozens of tuk-tuks and moto riders, down the street to your bank.
These days a bank will only open an account for foreigners who possess a six-month visa and or, have a letter of job offer from an employer. If you change an employer you may have to change banks, as banks in Cambodia seem reluctant to pay money into accounts with rival operators. When I first went to Cambodia there were no ATMs that I was aware of, in the whole country. Today Acleda gives the widest coverage of money machines, but other banks such as ANZ Royal and to a lesser extent, Canadia and Cambodian Public Bank spread around. Smaller family-owned banks such as Vattanac, have limited coverage and are restricted to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Visas for working in Cambodia are very straightforward. The two main visa categories for foreigners are the tourist visa; valid for one month and which can only be renewed once inside Cambodia before you must leave the country. The other visa is the business visa, which isn’t really a work permit but allows the holder to stay in the country indefinitely. These are valid for one, three and six months, and for one year. The six month and one year visas are multiple entry and visas can be arranged through any travel agent, prices vary only slightly. Visas for Cambodia are available upon arrival, though be careful at some of the lesser border points where police can get creative with fees.
Aside from NGO and embassy staff, volunteers, and high flyers with the UN or World Bank, hotel and bar owners (see part one ‘Working in the Kingdom of Wonder - The Expats Guide to Cambodia’), those not teaching but working get by in a array of occupations. Everything from chefs to IT, HR and ‘consultancies’ to motorcycle rentals and hole-in-the-wall chop shop customisers, tour companies and various import-export enterprises and everything that that conjures up. Some expats are known to use legitimate businesses as fronts for various illegal activities.
All up, Cambodia is now more settled than it used to be. The old Wild West reputation that it had is slowly disappearing, but it hasn’t gone entirely. Some of the things that make it more ambiguous are the things that also make it all the more appealing; more so in my view than some of its more sanitised neighbours. One of the things you find about Asia, and Cambodia in particular, is that some people go there to reinvent themselves. Some of the expats aren’t what they appear to be, but then people say the same thing about Cambodia itself, which also serves to make the country all the more intriguing.