I was sitting on the back of a motorbike grimly clutching a briefcase full of 100 baht bills when the realities of working in Thailand really dawned on me.
One of the downsides of being the contracts administrator in an Engineering company is that one gets stuck with the jobs that doesn’t fit anybody’s official duties.
This time it was going to rescue Ken – not his real name – a Kiwi Project Manager who instead of enjoying Friday afternoon in a Soi Cowboy beer bar was under siege in his site hut in suburban Bangkok.
Because of a glitch in the insanely bureaucratic payroll system our Singaporean employers used, Ken’s labourers hadn’t been paid and now they were threatening to burn down the site hut with Ken and his office staff in it.
So the story of Chip Starnes, the US businessman freed yesterday after being held hostage by former employees in his Beijing office for six days, is very familiar. It’s a story that expat workers should understand about their status and position when they take an overseas assignment.
While Chip seems to have come out of the ordeal unscathed apart from being in need of a good night’s sleep and a shower, it could have been much worse; shortly after I left Thailand an Australian accountant was gunned down over a business dispute involving a sugar mill outside Bangkok.
In Dubai, two Australian property developers find themselves mired in a legal dispute that could see them facing a decade in gaol.
The risks involved in being an expat worker are easily to overlook, particularly in places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore where the life is good for western expatriate workers – the reality for Filipino maids or Pakistani labourers is another matter of course.
When things go wrong though, they go wrong badly and the reality of life in a foreign country can be a rude shock for expats who thought they were living a privileged existence.
The guilded cage for expats is a nice, comfortable place to live in but it is a lot more fragile than many think.
For Ken, he escaped being burned out of his site hut by an angry mob as we arrived before the torches were lit. Some frantic dishing out of notes to the crowd – I’m still sure many of those we gave money to didn’t actually work for us – defused the situation.
Ken still got his Friday night beers at Soi Cowboy and took the whole saga as being part of a day’s work in Thailand, but then Ken was an old Asia construction hand who had no illusions of what could befall an innocent expat. Others might not have been so relaxed.