A second lockdown and this time some language schools remain open. ‘Places of education’, for example, are exempt so that’s the description EC English are currently opting for. In other schools, there’s been talk of management seeking to get staff classified as ‘essential workers’ so that, global health crisis or not, the show must go on. With language teachers as essential workers. Apparently.
It is well documented that the UK TEFL industry is intertwined with tourism, with clients tending to combine language learning with extended holidays. It is therefore also part of the hospitality sector, prone to the same seasonal fluctuations as the rest of the tourism industry. Covid-19 has hammered TEFL as dramatically as it has hammered airlines. Only 7% of teachers were working as usual at the start of the first lockdown.
The Government’s emphasis on the furlough being a ‘job retention scheme’ was dutifully taken as a signal for language schools to initiate redundancy procedures as the scheme wound down and came to its first scheduled end.
English UK, essentially the TEFL bosses’ organisation, however argued against Rishi Sunak’s ‘one size fits all approach.’ They lobbied for an extension of the furlough till March 2021 along side an extension of the tax holiday for language schools. EC English senior management encouraged teachers to write to their MPs and the relevant petitions did the rounds on WhatsApp groups.
But English UK did not get their wish: there was no specific government support offered to the language teaching industry. This meant that there were a rash of redundancies in language schools in September and October.
But now that furlough has been extended to the date UK English were asking for, are those redundant teachers going to be rehired? Government guidelines allow for this if redundant employees were on the pay role before 23rd September 2020.
So this is the opportunity for language schools to put their money with their mouth is: the industry said they wanted the extra government help so they could keep staff employed during the crisis. (How many TEFL employers use the term ‘[the x language school] family?)
However, language schools seem reluctant to rehire even when legally possible. The government estimates that the cost of keeping an employee on furlough will be roughly 5% of their usual salary. EC is better than most and staff have been brought back (more on that later) but what about Kaplan or EF or St. Giles? Are these massive chains – or the myriad of independent language schools across the UK – going to do the right thing? Some have already said no. As for the others, don’t hold your breath.
Following the bosses’ advocation of appealing to a more sophisticated Tory fiscal logic will not get us anywhere. Industry always claims the issue is jobs, job, jobs. The reality, as we know, is profit, profit, profit. The furlough extension had little to do with UK English’s lobbying efforts in any case.
So why the extension?
Firstly, the Tories have no confidence in lockdown measures, currently in place until December 2nd. A complete lockdown is not possible as schools must remain open to allow workers to work. The tightrope of profits vs an adequate public health response is not one they can walk. The best they can manage is a partial lockdown to stop the NHS becoming too overwhelmed. Further discontent, they hope, will thus be negated. Also, the UK’s image as an advanced economy in the soft power battles of inter-imperialist rivalries will hopefully be, to a certain extent, protected. On the back of that comes the furlough extension to stop businesses shedding thousands of jobs at the same time adding to the discontent and leading to closures.
It is best to view the extension of the furlough as a part of the Bank of England’s new £150 billion package of aid to business. Business is what is truly being protected here. Preserving a downsized body of labour power to restart the process of exploitation once we’re out of the shit is necessary.
Aid packages do not get ploughed into productive investment, creative job adaptation and retraining – things that would happen if job protection was really the priority. What they allow, instead, is continued financial speculation and share purchases. The ruling class continues to accumulate capital by parasitising on the economy. This was most blatantly illustrated by the ‘test and trace’ contract going to SERCO.
The TEFL industry has a history of a serious lack of union organisation. Thus it has a history of associated symptoms, such as zero hour contracts and bogus self-employment. However, in the UK we’ve recently had the growth of the TEFL Workers’ Union. This has led to a number of victories in regards t getting staff onto furlough at the start the pandemic, the high-profile campaigns against EF and Kaplan, and organisational support for reps at EC English who managed to reduce redundancies with an unpaid leave agreement. Those subject to that agreement are now back on furlough as they remained on the pay role.
This needs to be celebrated and noted: by acting collectively and with the backing of the union, staff at EC were able to go on leave, but stay on payroll. Now that the furlough scheme has been extended, those same workers are back on furlough. The TEFL industry can afford to treat their staff with some dignity. The schools that didn’t – like EF that kicked staff off furlough at end of September – did so as a matter of choice, to protect profits at the expense of the financial security of their staff.
In Ireland, TEFL workers have won union recognition and the Irish Education Ministry therefore felt compelled to consult with them when planning its response to the initial Covid 19 outbreak. Self-activity and organisation works. Forget writing polite letters to Tories.
The disputes and chaos over furlough illustrate a couple of further points in addition to the fundamental point on the need to unionise. A battle at a language school concerning furlough, redundancies and the response to Covid 19 immediately implies a battle against the government and the capitalist state. What we are responding to is the ultimate impossibility of capitalism and its representatives being able to rectify its current dystopian manifestations, the lurches to the authoritarian right and the increased tempo of environmental catastrophe of which Covid 19 is one of the clearest and most dramatic examples so far.