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Point Of View: ‘If you win, we all win’

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Blair Matthews explains why Tefl teachers should unite to fight for better pay and conditions.

I’ve been a TEFL teacher for 16 years and in that time I have worked in a dozen or so schools. I’ve been made redundant twice, been on zero hours contracts, had my hours capped and generally been subject to the low status and poor pay that is too often typical in EFL. I’ve worked in places where bullying and bad management have gone unchallenged.

At the same time, I have invested my own time and money in qualifications, training and attending conferences, to the benefit of my employers. These experiences stand in stark contrast to the huge wealth-generating capacity of the TEFL industry. In the UK alone, the ELT industry is worth £1.2 billion (supporting thousands of jobs). Why then are teachers often employed on short-term and zero hours contracts with few benefits? I don’t know many teachers who own their own homes or have pensions.

I love my job. I think it is worthwhile and I am committed to my career as a TEFL teacher, but the lack of security means that I can’t make long term plans. I don’t even know where I’ll be this time next year, and I often feel powerless. Because of the transient nature of the profession, there’s often no one around who is there to stick up for me.

This is why I started TEFL Guild. The aim of this website is to provide an archive of working conditions in TEFL so that teachers don’t feel alone and to argue for collective bargaining rights. I would love to see TEFL teachers have a stronger role in the industry. I want to see an organised profession and have teachers educate themselves on their workplace rights.

Teachers are getting organised. A number of schools have won collective bargaining rights in the USA, UK, Canada, Ireland and Italy, and there are currently movements in Brazil, Argentina, Spain and other countries aiming to improve working conditions for EFL teachers. Grassroots groups such as TaWSIG (Teachers as Workers Special Interest Group), ELT Advocacy Ireland, A Better Kaplan (in the US) and SLB Coop (Spain) are doing a lot of great work organising teachers.

In the EU, the law protects our right to collectively bargain pay, hours and working conditions. These rights are fundamental in social democracies (despite forty or so years of neoliberal economics) because collective bargaining works.

Under collective bargaining agreements, representatives of workers (made up of teachers and a union representative) meet with senior management to negotiate hours, pay and conditions and any other issue that affects employees (such as training or equality). As a workplace representative, I have had modest success in negotiating flexible working hours, workplace learning and the transfer of zero hours contracts to permanent ones. Through collective bargaining we also have a forum for conflict resolution, allowing teachers to raise problems anonymously so that they are dealt with before they become big problems.

Collective bargaining benefits employees and employers. It’s a free HR service. In my last place of work, we won union recognition despite an employer extremely hostile to a union presence. A tribunal mandated that employees and management met three times a year. After a while, the employer saw the value of this process and now there are meetings once a month. In my current place of work, we have workplace reps in health and safety, workplace learning and equality, all of whom are teachers who receive time and training to improve conditions in their workplaces (free to the employer).

I’d like to see a TEFL profession where teachers work together to improve conditions for everyone, where terms and conditions are fair and where we can stand up for our rights as workers.

If you and your colleagues are interested then there are a number of things you can do. Talk to other teachers. If there’s something bothering you, you can be certain it’s bothering others. Join a union. Trade unions provide valuable advice on how to assert your rights – they’re the experts in employment law. Trade unions will also approach your management on your behalf, so you don’t have to stick your head above the parapet. Appoint representatives. Workplace representatives have certain privileges in employment law, which protect their ability to raise concerns with employers. Finally, get in touch. This is an international movement and you have support from fellow TEFL teachers. If you win, we all win.

Blair

Blair Matthews is a teacher at a leading UK university. He runs the TEFL Guild website teflguild.wordpress.com and Twitter account @teflguild.