TEFL Workers’ Union in 2020: a year in review
In a year that saw massive disruption to the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) industry, our union has been an active and vocal voice for workers in language schools.
Mass redundancies, school closures, cuts to pay and conditions: it’s clear that schools intended to take the cost of this crisis out on us. Yet, in the face of this, our union secured a number of victories, both big and small. When we stand up and we stand together, we win.
With this in mind, we wanted to collect and celebrate some of our victories over the past year. School owners aren’t invincible. School management can be held to account. When we’re willing to challenge the boss, we can win. The past years proves it.
- In our biggest victory of the year, we challenged the manner in which EF calculated holiday pay during the furlough period. Teachers at London EF raised the issue collectively and were later joined by staff from other branches of the company. The union took the issue through the company’s internal grievance procedures before making a claim to an employment tribunal. It was at this point that the company conceded and awarded back pay to hundreds of workers across the company. We estimate that the total amount was close to £100,000!
- Also at EF, union members raised the fact that the company required staff to complete unpaid health & safety and safeguarding training at the start of their employment. This is illegal as all required training must be paid. As a result, the company awarded back pay to scores of workers across the UK!
- EF also initially refused to place workers on furlough who were outside of the country at the time the scheme was announced. When challenged by the union, the company backtracked, and we secured furlough for a number of workers at EF.
- Across the UK, we ran our redundancy law training for hundreds of language school workers. Union reps then worked closely with elected staff redundancy representatives, offering legal guidance to ensure school management was held to account during redundancy processes. This included workers at most of the big chains (EF, St. Giles, EC) and at a number of smaller schools as well.
- One of those schools in which the union was actively involved in supporting workers during the redundancy process was Kaplan. Kaplan uses rolling fixed-term contracts and initially tried to deny that staff with sometimes decades of service at the company had been “continuously employed” for longer than a year. The company quickly conceded that workers with four or more years or service had to be considered permanent employees. This resulted in long-term workers collectively gaining tens of thousands of pounds of their rightful redundancy pay.
- Kaplan, however, has still refused to recognise the correct length of service for redundant workers with 3 years or less of service. We are in the early stages of an employment tribunal challenging Kaplan’s use of fixed-term contracts.
- Also at Kaplan, we secured the rightful pension of a fellow worker when management failed to make the correct contributions to their final payslip after they were made redundant.
We need pay scales, paid prep time and permanent, guaranteed hours contracts for all language school staff. Language school workers need a strong, independent voice on the job. That means having the confidence to challenge school management when they mistreat us. It means having the solidarity to fight together, collectively, to improve conditions across the industry.
It means having an union.
- At The Overseas Teacher, an online language school, we have an outstanding employment tribunal claim challenging the teachers’ designation as self-employed. Teachers at The Overseas Teacher faced sub-minimum wages, extortionate fines for being ill, were banned from drinking water on camera, and were denied basic employment rights like holiday pay, sick leave, and notice pay. The Overseas Teachers then sacked all of their teachers en masse in the weeks before Christmas and the union raised thousands of pounds to support them during the holiday season.
- At a different online school, management tried to deny a worker their monthly bonus. After the union intervened, management relented and paid the teacher their rightful wages.
- One small London school had been failing to provide holiday pay for workers on zero-hours contracts. Supported by the union, a teacher took out a grievance. As a result, the company changed their policy and awarded back pay to the workers involved.
- We took Language House London, a school that exemplifies the worst of the world of TEFL, to an employment tribunal over bogus self-employment. There were 16 different claimants who’d been denied everything from holiday pay, notice pay and, in some cases, weeks of unpaid wages. We’ve won this tribunal and the workers involved have been awarded nearly £40,000 in back pay!
- We are in the process of taking another school, Promise, to tribunal also on the grounds of false self-employment. While this tribunal is still in process, we fully expect to win. We also understand that Promise’s current job advertisements now offer direct, salaried employment to teachers. So we’re chalking that one up as a victory.
- At an independent language school in London, school management tried to force teachers to use annual leave in lieu of putting staff on furlough. After a protracted back-and-forth, the school owner accepted that staff were entitled to go on furlough.
- At a language school in a coastal town, we secured a redundancy payment for a teacher on a zero-hours contract whose school declined to offer them teaching hours. The school initially miscalculated the amount of the payment, an issue which was rectified after the union became involved.
- At another coastal language school, a teacher was made redundant. Much like the situation at Kaplan outlined above, the company tried to deny the worker their rightful length of service. The worker and the union made a claim to an employment tribunal. The school management accepted that the worker was entitled to their full redundancy payment.
We’re proud of everything we achieved this year. We’ve still got a long way to go if working in a language school is to ever be a decent career option.
The IWW TEFL Workers’ Union is open to all non-managerial staff. If you work in a language school, the IWW has got your back. Get involved in the union. Let’s stand up and stand strong, together. JOIN TODAY!
In Solidarity, let’s make 2021 the year that we make TEFL a career.
If you live outside of the UK, the following unions organise within language schools:
United States: https://cwa-union.org