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Point of View: Life through a new lens

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Paul Walsh asks what is preventing an open discussion of stagnant or declining working conditions

In John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi film They Live, a man finds a pair of sunglasses. He puts them on, gazes up, and takes a deep breath, unable to believe what he sees. The advertising billboards in front of him display a series of morbid commands: ‘Obey’, ‘Consume’ and a dollar bill reads: ‘This is your God’. It’s a conspiracy!

Isn’t it a bit like that in ELT? We teachers rarely rock the boat; we obey a bit more than we should. We consume coursebooks, print handouts, pump photocopiers till they groan and die. And in terms of religion, gurus are our pedagogical gods.

It’s a conspiracy!

I’m joking. But there’s a grain of truth here. Let me explain: last month I spoke at an event on working conditions organised by my teacher’s association in Berlin, where one comment floored me: ‘The problem is that teachers just don’t ask for more money.’

This comment led me to broader questions than why we don’t have better pay. It made me ask what it is about the way that people think that prevents an open discussion of stagnant or declining working conditions.

I mean, it may be true that teachers don’t ask for more money. It may also be true (though I doubt it) that some teachers don’t want more money. But I’m more interested in the frameworks we think with – the lenses we see through. Perhaps they determine the current situation more than we think.

As well as this, I wonder whether there might be a new framework, a new lens that might help us see these problems in a newer, kinder light. Let’s start with the existing lens: market justice. In Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, German economist Wolfgang Streeck describes it as one of two ‘competing principles’ driving Western democracies after the second world war, and the principle behind much of our economic thinking today.

Market justice is appealing because it offers a simple, believable, model. The basic idea? We’re all individuals, making economic choices according to our preferences under conditions of market equality. Within such a model, market justice sorts out winners and losers in an objective manner – if you lose in such a system then it’s down to your own individual failings.

Within such thinking, it’s down to the individual to adapt to the changing whims of the market, a dynamic market that continually provides new chances for entrepreneurial makers – rather than unadventurous ‘takers’.

This means that when I talk to teachers about the bad pay or working conditions I’ve encountered I often hear: ‘Don’t worry about it. You can go into materials design, or coaching, or teacher training.’ You see? Through a market justice lens, the market waves its magic wand – and a solution appears.

Yet the statistics say otherwise. According to IMF figures, the labour share (money paid to workers as a percentage of GDP) has declined since the 1980s even though productivity has increased.

The reasons? Globalisation, flexible labour markets (including the use of zero-hours contracts and freelancing), the monopoly power of large corporations and declining trade union membership have all contributed.

And therefore moving sectors, or moving jobs – while possibly a short-term fix – won’t change the underlying problem.

The simple truth is that market justice no longer provides adequate solutions. As a 2013 article in The Economist puts it, ‘All around the world, labour is losing out to capital.’ And losing fast.

So what’s the alternative? Wolfgang Sreeck suggests the opposing principle: social justice. He writes that social justice is not grounded in a simplistic model but in ‘collective ideas of fairness, correctness and reciprocity’.

This principle accepts there are problems that markets cannot solve: deeper, thornier problems of distribution and equity, problems that must be argued out, fought for and won (just ask the Suffragettes).

And to return to ELT, social justice reminds us that alongside market choices and preferences, we have moral responsibilities – to colleagues, to learners and to a profession – not just mere obligations to an industry.

In 2016 I attended the ‘Power to the teacher’ conference in Barcelona. In the last session, workers and employers were brought together to discuss solutions. Teachers spoke of declining working conditions, a lack of respect, of not feeling valued. One of the employers replied, ‘I’m sorry. I just don’t recognise your reality.’

And that’s the problem. Many ELT teachers live lives of quiet immiseration, with little chance of improving their conditions as isolated individuals. Yet before we can collectively tackle these issues we have to see them; the first step towards remedy must be recognition. So I call on the wider ELT community to look at these problems through a new lens, a social justice lens, and in a kinder light.

It’s not a conspiracy. Just open your eyes. And see the teachers standing right in front of you.

Paul Walshweb

Paul Walsh is a teacher, writer and precarious worker. He is the founder of TaWSIG, a special interest group dedicated to improving working conditions for language teachers. @josipa74