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English language schools: 'Low-hours contracts, low pay and bogus self-employment'

Ireland may present itself as a world leader in ELT but teachers in these schools have to contend with poor employment conditions, writes Roy Hassey.

Roy Hassey Unite the Union

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE teaching (ELT) sector is booming: over one hundred English language schools employ 1,000+ teachers, and the most lucrative schools are being eyed for takeover by multinationals, and even Russian billionaires.

Earlier this year, Education Minister Richard Bruton launched a plan to grow the value of the sector to €2.1 billion by 2020 – a 33% increase.

With students being charged approximately €1,500 for a six-month, part-time course, there’s money in English language teaching, but not for teachers.

Precarious work and low pay

Ireland may present itself as a world leader in ELT but teachers in these schools have to contend with precarious work, low pay and poor employment conditions.

The use of fixed-term contracts is endemic: in fact, some schools maintain all their teachers on temporary contracts, letting them go as soon as they approach four years’ service and are entitled to a permanent contract.

Low-hours contracts and bogus self-employment are also a growing concern, while most ELT teachers can only dream of overtime or sick pay. Unite has come across several schools offering teachers eleven-month contracts in January, letting them go just before Christmas and offering another eleven-month contract the following January.

The reason? It means the school doesn’t have to pay holiday pay over the Christmas period.

Financial exclusion

Precarious working doesn’t just mean financial insecurity: it also results in a form of financial exclusion, with teachers on fixed-term contract unable to even get a car loan, never mind a mortgage.

Virtually all schools only pay for so-called “contact hours”: classroom hours in direct contact with students. Yet most teachers spend at least 10 hours a week preparing and marking lessons and developing teaching plans essentially for free.

Those teachers who do have a permanent contract still have to contend with wage rates as low as €13 an hour for a 30 hour week. That’s just €1.50 above the living wage.

Discrimination is rife

Ironically, given that the sector relies on a steady stream of foreign custom, discrimination is also rife, with many schools paying lower salaries to non-native speakers in blatant contravention of the Employment Equality Act.

The sector has also been bedevilled by a lack of regulation, with the monitoring body – Accreditation and Coordination of English Language Services (ACELS) – being starved of both funding and staff.

A couple of year ago, following a series of high-profile school closures which left both teachers and students high and dry, the government pledged to step up regulation. ACELS is now being phased out, and Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) will have regulatory responsibility in the future.

In a move to combat criminality and corruption, the government published an Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP) in early 2016.  This went some way towards regulating and standardising school ownership and administration, laying down basic standards relating to issues such as class size, health and safety, and basic facilities.

But the ILEP – published by the Departments of Justice and Education – does not address workers’ rights.  In fact, it seems that the rights of teachers remain incidental to the business (and it is a business) of English language teaching.

Systemic abuse of rights

Unite represents almost 100 teachers across nearly 20 schools, and earlier this year we requested a meeting with Education Minister Richard Bruton to raise our members’ concerns regarding the systematic abuse of workers’ rights in the ELT sector.  That meeting was refused, and we have now requested a meeting with Tánaiste and Minster for Justice Frances Fitzgerald to ask that the ILEP be redrafted and placed on a statutory footing to enshrine the employment rights of teachers.

The English language teaching sector has the potential to be a driver not only of consumer spending and profits, but also of high value-added employment. We need to start viewing English language teaching as an export sector, and treating it accordingly. Unite is determined to ensure that the sector fulfils its potential. We can make a start by outlawing shoddy employment practices.

Roy Hassey is Regional Organiser for Unite the Union, which is currently working with English language teachers to improve their pay and working conditions.

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Roy Hassey  / Unite the Union

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