‘ZERO-HOURS CONTRACT STAFF EARN £1000 A YEAR LESS’, ‘ZHCS TRAPPING YOUNG PEOPLE IN HOMELESSNESS’, ‘NUMBER OF ZHCS RISES BY 100 000 IN SINGLE YEAR’, ‘ZHCS HARM YOUNG PEOPLE’S MENTAL HEALTH’, ‘MORE THAN 5 MILLION PEOPLE IN BRITAIN SUFFER LOW-PAID, INSECURE WORK’, ‘WORKERS ON FLEXIBLE CONTRACTS BEGGING MANAGERS FOR MORE HOURS.’
You get the idea. Harry Potter has done more for the industry of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, or ‘TEFL’, an industry estimated to be worth £2 Billion to the UK economy in 2020, than perhaps any other consideration. It does the soul good to see the thousands of Brazilians, Italians, Russians, Koreans and the rest, touching down wide-eyed and trembling with excitement in Ye Olde Englande, hearts throbbing at the prospect of a ‘real’ education in the land of Hogwarts; of learning the language of Shakes of J.K.Rowling. Yet the reality is too frequently a dizzying punch in the gut. I’ve seen students fall to pieces upon learning that I, a true-born Englishman as they would have it, do not, in fact, stroll about the city of Mary Poppins in bowler hat and umbrella, whistling and flying kites. Incoming students’ expectations are often unreasonable, sure, but the reality is so much harder to bear as a result.
So painful is the discovery, then, that their teachers, whom they invariably love and adore even without cloaks, mortar-boards and magic wands, are not so much revered, as in their countries, but scorned by the industry they serve, struggling in insecure jobs on zero-hours contracts, wages falling far behind inflation with never a pay rise in sight, and expected to do huge amounts of the work for zero money.
It’s not just teachers, obviously, but workers skilled and unskilled up and down the country, and in all manner of industries. Not just young workers doing summer jobs and still living ‘at home’ with mum and dad. We’re talking workers of all ages; people with families to support and mortgages to pay and all the rest of it.
But what’s the harm, really? The hours are never actually zero, are they? You always have work, don’t you? Well, actually, sometimes hours are cut low, even to zero, but in busy periods you get pressured by your super-friendly manager into doing extra hours you might not want, leading to frustration and exhaustion. When I attempted to secure a mortgage a couple of years ago, I was laughed out of the shop: “A teacher, you say? On a zero-hours contract? You can’t be serious? Application denied!” The working conditions of ZHCs are not simply the insecurity they imply, with all the anxiety and stress that entails; there are wide reaching implications for every part of your life.
So, what’s to be done? Perhaps the new Conservative government will get to work on stamping out ZHCs, which, after all, are illegal in most parts of Europe, and certainly they’ll want to ensure working conditions in Britain are higher than in Europe post-Brexit. Fine. Maybe. But just in case Bojo & Co don’t make workers’ rights their A1 top priority in February, perhaps other avenues need exploring. That’s right; it’s time to join your union.
Ten of us TEFL teachers work for a small, independent language school in central London. If I say so myself, we’re a great team, work together well, and deliver an excellent service – ask any student! Without getting into too much detail, about two years ago we collectively agreed that there were things at work which were, shall we say, unsatisfactory. We were expected to arrive 15 minutes early for work (quick arithmetic: assuming £10:50/hour admin rate, that’s £681.20 a year unpaid. NB a worker cannot be compelled to be at work if they are not being paid). We were expected to do planning and preparation for classes (usually several hours a week). “Oh, but that’s taken into account by your higher hourly rate of pay” – bluh!
We had gone years without pay increases, no sick pay, we were blocked from taking holiday through July-August peak business, and all manner of other complaints.
Unfortunately, we found management and ownership curiously unreceptive to our polite suggestions for adjustments, pleading their poor bank accounts, which turned out not to be all that empty, actually, (it’s easy enough to see your company’s finances on Companies House – www.gov.uk/government/organisations/companies-house), so we decided to join the union. In our case, it was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World – https://iww.org.uk/). We wanted to take responsibility for any industrial action ourselves, and the IWW is all about that, though always open to collaborating with other unions – solidarity and all that…
Action: One warm summer morning in July, all teachers met outside the school wearing red tops, and walked into work together at 9:15am (am classes are 9:15-12:30). We sat down together in the staff room and spent one hour conducting a ‘plan-in’, refusing to go to class. We wrote lesson plans, did photo-copying and all the other work usually carried out unpaid in our own time. Meanwhile, management were running about distributing worksheets and telling students we had an ‘emergency meeting’. Note we had warned the school of our intentions the previous week – they were still completely unprepared and left underage students either unattended, or with unvetted adult students. These schools seldom appear to take safe-guarding very seriously.
Our protest, our first real show of strength and solidarity, was met with formal disciplinary procedures. We were organised and prepared. They were not. They bungled every step of the way and we spent an entire day going through meeting after meeting for each of the teachers being disciplined (only 7 of the 10, since the others were not scheduled for teaching at the time of the protest, but were present in solidarity). There were endless exasperating moments during this process. The extraordinarily incompetent HR manager attempted to change significant parts of the official disciplinary procedure, which forms part of the contract, in order to defeat us, but we weren’t standing for any such nonsense. When we drew attention to the illegality of altering contracts unilaterally, she argued, and I quote “…the contract is exactly the same, only the wording is different.” Read that quote again a couple of times and you begin to see what we were up against.
In the event, all teachers were accompanied in their meetings by a representative from the IWW, but did most of the talking themselves, very eloquently, I may say – these are English teachers, after all. The disciplinary was squashed. In a word: Victory!
Over time, through keeping up pressure, and with support from a wide network of fellow workers and union members in and out of TEFL, playing every trick in the book, and from friends and family, we secured: removal of the 15 minute thing, no more summer black outs, a fairer pay policy and small increases, 5 days sick pay, paid meetings and training sessions and other minor concessions. Teachers from other schools fighting similar battles joined the IWW and now we’ve created the TEFL Workers Union, under the umbrella of the IWW (https://iww.org.uk/news/tefl-union-launched-in-london/). The TWU isn’t just for teachers, but for all non-management workers in the industry, including admin and reception staff, cleaners and even unpaid interns (who need a union as much as anyone). We’ve received endorsements from various industry professionals, including Hugh Dellar, author of the Outcomes course books, as well as such champions of the English language as Benjamin Zephaniah and even Noam Chomsky (a long time IWW member).
We are still on zero-hours, but we’ve won a lot and we ain’t done yet. The TEFL Workers’ Union continues to expand, with more campaigns and victories for workers – TEFL bosses beware!
For more details of this campaign and the hows and whys of the IWW and TWU, you can listen to:
Kim Jong Paul Satre is a TEFL teacher and TWU organiser. You can hear his recent interview with Malcolm Bennison of the IWW on Threads in the player above.