Digital nomads stuck in the gray area

The coronavirus pandemic has boosted the popularity of remote working, and if Thailand is to attract the highest paid digital workers to help boost the economy, it must legalize the practice to accommodate these professionals.

In some parts of the world, people leave their desks to work from their laptops wherever an internet connection is available, including homes, cafes, and beaches.

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

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

Research published in 2019 by the Faculty of Economics of the Chiang Mai University Entrepreneurship Association (CMEA) shows that 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 housing and workspaces, and emerging digital nomad communities.

The report shows that each spent 35,000 baht on monthly expenses, 200,000 baht per year on tourism activities, 15,000 baht per month on accommodation and 5,000 to 10,000 baht per month on food.

Yet Thailand’s visa and work permit laws are said to be a deterrent that can keep digital nomads away. The report states that a digital nomad must spend 60,000 baht to pay an agent to obtain a visa.

The lack of regulations for digital nomads puts them in a gray area. Digital nomads with businesses 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, often do not allow holders to work or earn income while living in Thailand, so digital nomads do not pay taxes and do not have no more social protections.

A lack of employment compliance is one of the reasons Bangkok ranked low in a recent investigation report from WorkMotion, a human resources platform for hiring remote employees. In its report earlier this month, the capital was ranked 68th out of 80 global cities, while the top spots went to Melbourne, Montreal, Sydney and Wellington.

According to Carsten Lebtig, co-founder of WorkMotion, only 11 cities in some countries offered a digital nomad visa. Most of the cities polled in his study fell behind in this area, he said.

“Bangkok is currently held back by its employment compliance rules, making it difficult for companies to easily employ remote workers based elsewhere,” he said.

In September, the government revealed a plan to attract remote workers and digital nomads to work from Thailand. While this seems like a step forward for digital nomads, it doesn’t build the confidence of professionals looking to work from the beaches of Thailand.

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

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

Barbados introduced a special visa for remote workers in July of last year. The Barbados welcome stamp allows remote workers to work in the island nation for up to one year. Those interested in working there should earn at least 50,000 USD (1.6 million baht) per year or prove that they can afford to support themselves during their stay.

France is a country that plays a leading role in attracting remote workers, where its one-year freelance visa allows people to work in the European country without needing an employer to sponsor their stay.

Meanwhile, it would be enough to earn 1,540 euros (57,000 baht) per month, or about 18,000 euros per year, to qualify, according to visa information websites. While Thai law is still being drafted, the cabinet is expected to speed up its process and ensure the new regulations are implemented next year.

If the kingdom wants to open up to digital nomads, it must have an adequate system to accommodate them.

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