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ESL teachers, unions challenge use of fixed-term contracts

ESL teachers are hoping a series of tribunal claims against large English language schools in the UK will lead to better regulation of the industry and more scrutiny of employment practices.

ESLCovid-19 has led to huge numbers of redundancies and furloughs in the ELT sector. Photo: iStock Photo

95% of staff working in UK ELT have been furloughed or seen their jobs impacted

According to English UK, 95% of the 35,000 staff working in the UK’s ELT industry have been furloughed or seen their jobs impacted in some way, including being made redundant.

Disputes, particularly over how redundancy pay is calculated, have arisen in part due to the use of successive fixed-term contracts for employees and whether redundancy pay should be calculated from the start of the oldest or most recent contract.

The TEFL Worker’s Union (part of Industrial Workers of the World), which has seen member numbers at its London branch increase three-fold since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, has so far won several cases for teachers against the likes of EF and Kaplan International Languages.

The union argues that employees on fixed-term contracts should be hired as permanent staff and it wants to “begin to build a body of case law that can be used to challenge any TEFL employer that uses fixed-term contracts”.

In January, the union said it was filing for an employment tribunal against Kaplan International Languages due to the company calculating redundancy for staff with “decades of service” as being equivalent to those with only a single year of continuous employment.

According to former teacher Peter Wood, when he was furloughed, his wage calculation was based on the entirety of the time he had worked there, which had been for several years on fixed six-month contracts. When employer contributions were introduced to the furlough scheme, he was made redundant. Redundancy pay was then calculated from the start date of his most recent contract.

While teachers acknowledge that fixed-term contracts do serve a purpose – for example, in hiring short-term staff for peak periods – they take issue with their use for full-time, year-round workers.

“I wasn’t entitled to sick pay, holiday leave and had lots of other kinds of issues as well”

“[There’s] a lack of security. I wasn’t entitled to sick pay, holiday leave and had lots of other kinds of issues as well,” said Wood.

“If you are on a fixed contract, it’s very difficult to prove your income, which was an exacerbating factor in an 18 month battle that I had to have to with the Home Office to bring my wife into the country.

“And it also made it more difficult for us to get a mortgage before I was furloughed. Ironically, the furlough actually made getting a mortgage easier.”

He said that despite being a fixed-term contract worker, there was an assumption within the company that he was there permanently, as evidenced by the fact that at some points his contracts expired but he continued working as they simply “hadn’t got round to signing a new one”.

A spokesperson forKaplan International Languages told The PIE that the practice of offering fixed-term contracts is widespread throughout the sector in the UK and that a survey they conducted last year on potential changes to employment contracts showed “a large majority” of academic staff were happy with the outcome.

Another teacher, “Juliette”, who was formerly employed by St Giles International, argued that the way in which employment is set up in the industry made it easy to offload people during the pandemic.

“For example, any temp staff that worked for them would only work for them up to a maximum of two years to avoid any of the kind of permanent rights that come with you having spent longer in a company,” she said, adding that after two years staff had to take a break before starting a new contract.

Teachers who wanted to become permanent staff needed to obtain a DELTA qualification, while those without one could only work on fixed-term contracts.

St Giles – which is not subject to any tribunal cases or proceedings with regards to fixed-term contracts or redundancy – told The PIE that it wasn’t economically viable to put all its teachers on permanent contracts.

“It’s simply just not possible to take on a large number of permanent teachers”

“It’s simply just not possible to take on a large number of permanent teachers and to offer them work throughout the year,” explained Hannah Lindsay, group sales and marketing director and deputy CEO.

“We need to have a certain amount of confidence that student numbers will remain at a certain level as well when thinking about whether to take on permanent members.”

Lindsay added that the seasonal aspect of the industry and resulting fluctuating student numbers made it necessary to take on temporary members of teaching staff

Juliette and St Giles dispute the circumstances surrounding the redundancy process, with the latter claiming that it was rushed in order to meet the deadline for companies needing to make furlough contributions.

“It was more ‘we’re giving you information and then we tick the box that you’ve seen the information… We don’t have time to answer any questions because we need to get this done’,” she said.

In contrast, St Giles said it is “absolutely confident” the redundancy process “couldn’t have been done any better or in any fairer way”, and that it took and answered in writing over 200 questions from staff during the consultation period.

“We didn’t stop that process until the questions stopped,” said Niall Chafey, the principal at St Giles International Brighton.

“I refute the accusation that the process was rushed or accelerated in any way merely to meet that timetable, but when you’re conducting a redundancy process, you have to have a timetable in mind.”

He added the company had not received “a single complaint or claim made against St Giles by any staff member” with regards to redundancies.

“I would say [this] is a fairly clear indicator that the whole process was conducted appropriately,” he said.

English UK said that it was unable to comment on individual cases but chief executive Jodie Gray added that during the pandemic, it ran employment law webinars and HR training for members.

Tenuous job security among ESL staff is not just an issue in the UK however. Teachers in Ireland have a long track record of campaigning against “changes to contracts, taking pay cuts, readjusting hours so that there can be fewer teachers on the books, and separating and targeting union members”.

In Malta, Covid-19 has also led to greater membership numbers and recognition from schools for the Union of Professional Educators, which is the only union in Malta catering for the English language sector.

“When we had the issue of Covid in March, there were a few teachers who pushed for the industry to be unionised. We have had hundreds of teachers joining up since then and now we have the recognition of some schools,” said executive head of UPE, Graham Sansone.

While schools argue that fixed term contracts are necessary for an industry that is largely seasonal, teachers assert that the risks associated with student fluctuations should be borne by schools rather than their employees. Ultimately however, the lack of job security means many qualified, experienced teachers simply leave the industry.

“I’m now doing a job where I have a permanent contract,” said Wood.

“It is not as fun as ESL, but certainly my life has improved immensely and my stress levels have dropped. Now I’m not wondering how I’m going to keep the lights on every month.”

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