16th November 2020, London


Union takes online teaching school to tribunal in ‘gig economy’ battle
● Collective claim for teachers challenging self-employed status
● Teachers lost out on holiday pay, sick pay
● Unlawful deduction of wages and minimum wage violations due to fines


The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) are taking the online English teaching company The Overseas Teacher to employment tribunal in a case which cuts to the heart of the modern Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) industry.


The tribunal will hear the case of nine teachers, all hired on a self-employed basis. The individuals are filing a joint claim on four points: not being paid the national minimum wage; the unfair deductions of wages; failure to provide statutory sick pay; and failure to provide holiday pay.


As UK employment tribunals can only rule in judgements between employers and employees, the union will be essentially contesting the employment status of the teachers.


IWW lead caseworker Ryan McCready said:

“We feel these teachers were essentially employees in everything but name. Just looking through their contracts, we were alarmed by the amount of control which the company exerted over these individuals. When we spoke to the teachers, we were shocked by how much more this translated in practice.”


“What this means is that schools and other organisations can hire staff at below the minimum wage, ignore UK employee and worker legislation, and subject them to conditions that are incredibly harsh and regressive.” McCready said, solemnly adding, “It’s indicative of the declining state of the TEFL industry standards and this case really is the teachers standing up for their rights.”


Current UK employment law means that those deemed as self-employed are not entitled to the UK National Minimum Wage, protection against the unfair deduction of wages, as well as other rights many may take for granted, such as holiday pay and statutory sick pay. There is only a rough criterion through which to determine a workers’ status, however, leaving many workers unsure about their rights, especially in a modern “gig economy”.


The IWW intends to expand the case as widely as possible and is seeking current and former teachers at the Overseas Teachers to join the claim.
McCready explained:


“We know how widespread these issues are at the Company. As the claim progresses, more claimants can be added. The exploitation of teachers at this company is systematic and this is an opportunity for these mostly young teachers to receive justice.”


While numerous attempts were made to resolve matters internally and through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), the company has so far resisted addressing the matter, leading to teachers speaking out publicly.


One teacher spoke on the detrimental impact of the company’s regime of fines:
“It was really demoralising to see almost $100 deducted from my pay for 2 days of illness, that’s significantly more than I earn in that amount of time, so it seems very unfair. Eventually that led me to leaving the company as I don’t want to have to sacrifice my health for money.”


Another teacher relayed the difficulty in working under such precarious conditions:

“I was never in the job with the aspiration to make huge amounts of cash, only enough to survive. I accepted the bad working conditions and lack of communication because I believed the job provided me with the security to pay my bills. After our sudden and undiscussed change in contract, I could no longer afford most of my living costs. I now hold several jobs and continue to rely on Universal Credit due the unreliability and unethical practices of the Overseas Teacher.”


Notes for editors

The TEFL Workers’ Union is part of the Industrial Workers of the World, an independent trade union formed in 1905. The TEFL Workers’ Union is the only union actively organising within the UK’s £1.4 billion pound English language teaching industry.

The Overseas Teacher is an online language school that provides english lessons on the platform of Dada, the large Chinese language teaching company. According to its website, the Overseas Teacher is a joint project of ADM-Computing and China-based Enlight, although the exact ownership of the company is unclear as accounts are unavailable on Companies House.


Press Contact Ryan McCready
Email: tefl [at] iww [dot] org [dot] uk