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Online Teflers challenge self-employed status as union membership grows

TEFL Workers Union has submitted a legal claim on behalf of at least 15 UK-based EFL teachers against an online teaching entity that engaged them to teach online to China. It’s a further example of the increase in union action seen in recent years across the EFL sector.

In the UK and Ireland, union cases have centred on teachers left unpaid when schools suddenly closed or, in the case of the English Studio in early 2020, when sister schools in Dublin and London both ceased trading at the same time. Given the parlous state of the industry, we’re likely to see more such actions.

The latest case, however, is over the employment status of teachers, a subject the Gazette has been covering since 1987, though never before involving teachers who have been working online.

The teachers in this case, mostly young undergraduates, were hired on a self-employed contract by a website called The Overseas Teacher (TOT) to teach students on English courses run by the Chinese online giant DaDaABC.

The online teachers are asking the Employment Tribunal to redefine their work status as employees, thus allowing them to claim holiday pay, sick pay and compensation for ‘unlawful deductions’ – in this case, including fines for being late, cancelling classes or being unavailable.

A teacher working for TOT identifying herself by the initial ‘H’, told the Gazette fines for being unavailable were common. Fines for absence due to sickness varied from US$15 ‘without evidence’ to US$5 ‘with evidence’, such as a doctor’s certificate.

H said she was paid in pounds via an app – her rate was £3 per 25-minute lesson – with DaDaABC’s US dollar fines deducted before she received payment.

These claims are supported by a sample contract found on The Overseas Teacher’s website (www.theoverseasteacher.com/online- contract). It covers teachers working under The Overseas Teacher & DaDaABC Joint Online Teacher Program, also referred to as Free Talk. The pay is given as ‘UK National Minimum Wage’. Fines in US dollars are detailed for being two minutes late, cancelling lessons and failing to complete any of the required training.

Under UK law, employers cannot make such deductions from employees’ pay if it takes their hourly rate below the National Minimum Wage, but self-employed workers are not covered.

Previous UK employment cases have consistently found that EFL teachers working in schools cannot be self-employed. The practice is now rare in accredited schools, but a recent case taken by the TEFL Workers Union against an unaccredited school involved claims that, unbeknown to them, teachers had been treated as self-employed for tax purposes. The tribunal found in the teachers’ favour.

“The online teachers are asking the Employment Tribunal to redefine their 
work status as employees”

TOT may claim that those working online were not teachers. Another teacher interviewed by the Gazette said her job title was ‘language consultant’. She also told us she was 18 at the time, meaning she was entitled to just £6.45 an hour at minimum wage rather than the £8.72 required for employees over the age of 25.

TOT may also claim that the contract was not with them. The Gazette couldn’t find any companies with the name The Overseas Teacher registered at Companies House.

According to its website, The Overseas Teacher is a joint venture between the long-established computing company ADM Computing and a Chinese partner. The director is named as Adrian Bryant and the address given is in Canterbury, Kent.

There is an ADM Computing Ltd listed at Companies House, but it is not in Canterbury and has no directors named Bryant. However, an Adrian Bryant is listed as director and majority shareholder of ADM Computer Services Ltd, whose registered office is at the Canterbury address listed on the website.

According to a union spokesperson, all the TOT teachers it represents were informed in early December that they had ‘had their contracts cancelled’. Neither ADM Computing, The Overseas Teacher nor its sister site The Online Teacher have responded to email enquiries from the Gazette by the time we went to press.

With more teachers working online, the question of their employment status may become an increasing concern, further fuelling the move towards unionisation. Union membership across sectors has been rising steadily in the UK and Ireland since 2016. In Malta, the Union of Professional Educators, which began to fight for EFL teachers in 2020, saw membership grow over 10%.

Matt Salusbury
Matt Salusbury
MATT SALUSBURY, news editor and journalist, has worked for EL Gazette since 2007. He is also joint Chair of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists and co-edits its newsletter, the Freelance. He taught English language for 15 years in the Netherlands, in Turkey, in a North London further education college and now as an English for Academic Purposes tutor, most recently at the London School of Economics. He is a native English speaker and is also fluent in Dutch.
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